Australians to face sky-high air fares over Christmas as threat of industrial action at Qantas looms

<span>Photograph: William West/EPA</span>
Photograph: William West/EPA

Australians are facing a chaotic and expensive end-of-year travel season, with record-high domestic fares and the threat of fresh industrial action by Qantas flight attendants coming to a crescendo over Christmas.

Following months of higher-than-average domestic air fares, travellers looking to book the cheapest available return domestic air fares are facing prices not recorded since March 2004, according to air fare price indexes maintained by the Bureau of Infrastructure and Transport Research Economics.

The cheapest Melbourne-to-Sydney return fares in December are $268, while the cheapest Perth-to-Sydney return fares are $751 and Alice Springs-to-Sydney fares $959 for the same month, according to recent data from the government agency.

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The BITRE data focused on cheapest available fares. A cursory search for flights shows airlines charging hundreds more for average fares at many points in December. In the second week of December, Sydney-to-Melbourne return fares on budget carriers at the traditionally unfavourable early and late ends of Sydney airport’s curfew average $500.

International air fares to and from Australia are also skyrocketing ahead of the new year.

Economy fares to London from Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney over the December travel period are averaging $3,000, $2,641 and $2,250 respectively, according to data from flight booking website Prices from Brisbane to London are 73% higher than for the same period in 2019.

New Delhi, Kathmandu, Bali, Bangkok and Manila are the other most searched for international destinations for this Christmas holiday period. Data suggests 23 December will be the busiest day at Australian airports over the festive season.

Nicola Carmichael, the brand director of Kayak, said booking data suggests that record-high air fares aren’t deterring travellers from both interstate and international trips.

“Those hoping for smooth sailing to their destination may prefer to set off slightly earlier or later [than the 23 December peak],” Carmichael said.

“Avoiding the peak travel dates can also help travellers secure the best possible fare price, and we recommend setting up price alerts for your chosen destination to help secure a good price for your holiday.”

Record-high air fares are due to a confluence of factors, including the slow rebuilding of the aviation workforce due to Covid, staff illnesses, high fuel prices and pent-up demand for travel at a time when airlines are operating fewer flights than pre-pandemic.

Geoff Culbert, Sydney Airport chief executive, said that among the many reasons for high air fares, such as fuel prices, “supply is also clearly an issue”.

The number of seats on offer on the Sydney-to-Melbourne route in October was 76% of pre-Covid levels for the same month, and 80% for all other domestic routes. International seat capacity into Sydney Airport was at 58% of pre-Covid levels in October.

Another factor affecting prices is an imbalance in demand for international flights. The proportion of Australian residents going overseas compared with international tourists coming in is currently at 65:35, compared with 52:48 pre-Covid.

“People are talking about air fares, there is definitely a sense of sticker shock out there and if that becomes entrenched it could suppress the recovery,” Culbert said.

Meanwhile on Thursday, the Flight Attendants’ Association of Australia (FAAA) announced that its Qantas domestic flight attendant members had voted to support industrial action in response to the airline’s pay offer – with the union vowing to take a “measured approach” to minimise disruption over Christmas.

Qantas has proposed four-year pay deals that include an immediate pay rise, back pay and 3% increases each year. However the two cohorts of Qantas domestic flight attendants employed under separate subsidiary companies are currently on lapsed pay deals, which expired in August 2018 and January 2020 – meaning the offers are effectively six and eight year deals.

No new pay deals were negotiated during Covid – when Qantas had a two-year, company-wide wage freeze in place. For union members to accept the deal would mean their back pay and future salaries would be affected because the 3% pay rises would be calculated on a salary that was frozen for two years.

The proposal would also increase shift length as a requirement of working on new Airbus planes, and reduce crew rest periods between shifts when away from home to 10 hours – something Qantas claims is in line with agreements at other airlines.

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Teri O’Toole, FAAA federal secretary, said crew were being asked to work longer hours, accept a real wage cut in light of inflation above 7%, and were also being “punished” by the pandemic pay freeze at the same time as Qantas is making above-expected profits. On Wednesday Qantas announced its profit range for the first half of the financial year had increased $150m above expectation, to $1.45bn.

O’Toole said domestic flight attendants at one of the subsidiaries involved with the industrial action earn approximately $48,000 annually, contradicting comments from Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce earlier this year that the average employee at the airline earns more than $100,000.

“Cabin crew have worked through the pandemic, have dealt with unhappy passengers due to the issues with baggage, cancelled flights and all of the troubles Qantas has had, they have felt the brunt of this and this is no way to treat your loyal employees,” O’Toole said.

Qantas hit back at the FAAA on Thursday, calling the threat of industrial action “very disappointing” and labelling comments about the proposed deal “just wrong”. Qantas is offering a $5,000 bonus payment to members that sign up to the proposed deals, as well as 5,000 company shares.