Fewer passengers travelled through Sydney Airport in December last year than in five other months of 2022.
The business revealed passenger traffic was just 1,937,000 – down 17.5 per cent compared to the same month in 2019.
Across the country, domestic flying peaked at 97 per cent pre-pandemic passenger numbers in June 2022, but it came alongside all-time records for delays being broken that month and in April and July.
Since then, the industry has recruited thousands of extra staff and cut services to improve the passenger experience.
Selling fewer seats, however, has had the knock-on effect of sending prices to record levels.
It was hoped that flying would both return to traditional numbers and minimal delays at Christmas, with airlines increasing services to take advantage of the first festive period without COVID restrictions in three years.
Sydney Airport’s chief executive, Geoff Culbert, said there were 411,000 fewer domestic passengers in December 2022 than in December 2019.
“There is significantly more work to do to rebuild overseas travel, with international passenger traffic still well behind pre-pandemic levels and lower flight numbers,” he said.
“Australia needs to unlock more capacity, and quickly, if we want to see a sustained recovery for our tourism, education, and export industries.”
Domestic travel peaked at 2,044,000 in October 2022 at Sydney, but that was still similarly down more than 19 per cent on the same month in 2019, suggesting a stubbornly resistant bounce back.
There were also 1,157,000 international passengers passing through the airport in December 2022, more than three times the number in December 2021, but down 27.9 per cent compared to the same month in 2019.
International travel has knock-on effects for domestic, with many overseas tourists travelling around the country and subsequently booking interstate flights.
“There are some positive signs, with the number of flights to and from China rapidly increasing following that crucial border reopening and All Nippon Airways (ANA) announcing that it is doubling its Sydney to Tokyo flights to twice daily from late March,” said Culbert.
“Finally, operations at the airport continue to improve with 95 per cent of domestic passengers clearing security screening in less than 10 minutes throughout December.”
Australian Aviation has been reporting for months on the discrepancy between the two recoveries.
The latest set of data released by the Department of Transport, for instance, shows how the number of international seats for sale – or capacity – is down 45 per cent on pre-pandemic numbers, industry-wide.
It has meant that international flights are now jam-packed with 90 per cent of seats full, in what is likely to be one of the highest occupancy rates in history.
The knock-on effect has been that tourists are failing to return to Australia in great numbers, despite months without COVID-19 restrictions.
Data released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics show there were 370,000 “short-term overseas arrivals” in September 2022, compared to 695,000 in September 2019.
However, across the 2021-2022 financial year, just 18 per cent of those listed their reason for coming to the country as being to holiday, compared to 56 per cent who cited visiting friends or relatives.
The data appears to corroborate the observation made by Adelaide Airport’s MD, Brenton Cox, on the Australian Aviation Podcast.
“Right now, probably most of the people coming from overseas are doing so to visit friends and relatives, or for essential business,” he said. “The big free, independent travellers haven’t quite made their way here yet.”
Cox said he believed Australia’s COVID-19 response — which saw state borders open and close and a high-profile incident involving Novak Djokovic — deter casual visitors.
“I just remember looking at the scenes when Djokovic was being booted out of the Australian Open. And at that moment, you went, ‘Wow, it’s a lot of eyeballs on this.’
“And there are a lot of people who — similar to the state border risk — thought, ‘Well, if I come to this country, am I going to be trapped? Or am I going to be stuck in a detention centre?’”