Airport managers have accused Qantas and other major airlines of deliberately cancelling flights in order to block competition from smaller carriers.
The issue is of particular concern at Canberra Airport where Qantas cancelled 103 out of 923 flights to and from Sydney in July, or just over 11 per cent of the total.
Cancellation rates were far lower for the 37 other routes Qantas runs between Australian airports, including the Melbourne to Sydney service, one of the busiest air routes in the world.
There were also considerably fewer cancelled flights in other routes operating out of Canberra – for example, Qantas ran 348 flights between Brisbane and Canberra, and only two services were cancelled over the month.
Qantas cancelled more than three times as many flights from Canberra to Sydney as its rival Virgin Australia in July, which uses Link Airways aircraft and crew to operate the same route.
Canberra Airport CEO Stephen Byron has already voiced his concerns about the high levels of cancellations on the Canberra to Sydney route.
“Qantas is particularly picking on this Canberra-Sydney service,” Mr Byron told ABC Radio yesterday.
“They fly a lot of different routes into Sydney Airport with cancellation rates that are heaps better. For example, it’s 10 times better if they’re flying from Adelaide, the Gold Coast, the Sunshine Coast or Wagga. It’s five times better if they’re flying from Hobart, Launceston, Port Macquarie and about three or four other places.
“So Qantas can fly into Sydney Airport and not cancel flights, but they’re deliberately choosing to cancel the Canberra-Sydney flights.”
Mr Byron said the Melbourne route, the second worst for cancellations, is notorious, yet the Canberra cancellation rate is 45 per cent worse.
“They’ve got us right on a pedestal for cancellations. Quite frankly, Qantas have been doing this for months and months and months and are thumbing their nose at Canberra travellers. We’re just copping the raw end of the pineapple here.”
He said consumers are being “treated like mugs” by Qantas and that the Federal Government, as a regulator of the aviation industry, needs to step in to ensure the airline compensates passengers affected by cancellations.
“It’s time for Federal Government action because Qantas are indicating they’re not prepared to fix the problem.”
In his submission to the Standing Committee on Economics inquiry into promoting economic dynamism, competition and business formation, Sydney Airport’s chief executive Geoff Culbert said there were clear signs that major airlines were taking advantage of the ’80/20 rule’, meaning an airline must use its slot 80 per cent of the time to retain it for the following season.
“We continue to see evidence of unused slots going to waste, with a persistent mismatch between slots held by domestic airlines and the schedule that is flown,” he said.
“Over the decade leading to COVID, Sydney Airport began to see a pattern of behaviour, supported by the data, which indicated that the major incumbent domestic airlines historically filed for more slots than they needed.
“The airlines then cancelled certain flights on high frequency routes, consolidating those services with lower passenger numbers onto flights either side of the original time, but always staying above the 80% usage requirement.
“Such behaviour locks up part of the slot pool and can increase the difficulty for new entrants to compete against the entrenched dominant airlines, which can in turn impact on competition amongst airlines.”
Qantas has consistently denied claims of ‘slot hoarding’ and said that it tries hard to prevent cancellations from happening.
A Qantas spokesperson said: “The main driver of cancellations at Sydney isn’t Qantas. It’s chiefly weather and, to some degree, air traffic control staffing shortages.”
The spokesperson said the combination of these two factors caused Sydney Airport to operate at reduced capacity for 17 out of 30 days in June.
Asked why cancellations particularly affect Canberra Airport, Qantas told Region it’s because frequent services like Canberra-Sydney or Melbourne-Sydney can be more easily rescheduled, often within an hour or less of the original time.
“Airlines cancel more flights on high-frequency routes … because customers can be moved to one of dozens of other flights each day, meaning it’s less disruptive,” they said.
“If flights to places like Townsville or Tamworth are cancelled it can have a much bigger impact on customers and cause long disruptions.”
Stephen Byron and Canberra Airport were contacted for comment.