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Australians hoping to fly overseas in the coming months are facing exorbitant costs due to high demand and a scarce supply of seats on services flying into the country, as experts warn high prices will last another year.
The complicated logistical planning required for airlines to ramp up from skeleton operations has meant those seeking to take advantage of the reopened border will face financial hurdles, while aircraft are recalled from desert parking lots and furloughed staff and ground handling contracts are brought back online.
A backlog of more than 45,000 Australians are also still stranded overseas, adding another layer of complexity, demand and frustration to the picture.
An analysis of flight costs provided to Guardian Australia by booking site KAYAK shows the average cost of a one way economy ticket from Sydney to New Delhi – the most sought after route on the site over the past month – is $1,051, while the return leg on average adds $2,668 to the ticket cost for travel between November and December.
The average outbound leg from Sydney to London – the next most searched route over the same travel period – is priced at $1,012 for economy, with the return part of the trip costing $2,109.
While those prices are averages, some searches for individual services are significantly higher. A search for a three-week return trip from Sydney to New York from early to late December brings up options that consistently cost $5,000 for an economy ticket on Qantas.
In addition to India and the UK, countries with large diaspora communities in Australia, as well as locations with high concentrations of stranded Australians are dominating flight searches. Services to the United States, Nepal, Fiji, Lebanon, Bangladesh, the Philippines and Pakistan are rounding out the top 10 most sought after routes.
KAYAK said there was a surge in searches for international flights after comments from the New South Wales premier Dominic Perrottet, backed by prime minister Scott Morrison, that travel could be fast-tracked to early November.
Tom Youl, a senior industry analyst at IBISWorld, said “it could take a full year” before airlines return to pre-Covid capacities and ticket prices, predicting significantly higher prices up until December, a slight easing from February, before a gradual reduction in ticket prices over next year.
Youl said the price issues caused by the scarcity of seats on flights into Australia were being driven by pandemic-bruised and cash-conscious airlines, who he predicted will be cautious of rapidly increasing services because of a potential imbalance in demand between outbound and inbound seats.
He believes airlines will be conscious of the fact that while travel-hungry and vaccinated Australians will be able to return and quarantine for seven days in their home, the requirement for international tourists to isolate upon arriving will create a “significant barrier”.
After almost two years of flying near-empty planes into Australia while complying with the strict cap on quarantine places, Youl said airlines will be most concerned with filling every seat available on their services, and won’t be in a position to heavily discount services.
“Because of the losses they’ve sustained over the pandemic, they need to be really careful about profitability.
“If there’s not an even demand in both ways, there’s less incentive for airlines to fully expand quickly, so we have to take them at their word that there will be a careful, staggered return to pre-Covid capacities. They’re going to want flights as full as possible.”
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Youl said the carriers likely “still haven’t figured out the rules and logistics” of the lifting the exit ban and the initial reopening plan which the federal government has indicated could happen as early as November in states such as NSW.
Noting the excitement generated by the political announcements, Youl cautioned that initial travellers were likely to be those visiting friends and family and those returning from overseas.
Barry Abrams, the executive director of the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia, has previously told Guardian Australia that airlines had been left in the dark about what the new rules for international travel would be, and has since cautioned that members of his body, including Singapore Airlines and Emirates, are expecting wide-scale tourism to be delayed several months.
Australia’s current international passenger intake is 2,285 people a week, and has been significantly cut during the Delta outbreak. Airlines are flying planes with about 6,000 empty seats a day into Sydney airport and are only able to carry 110 passengers.