Just over half of Australia’s airports were busier during the last financial year than pre-pandemic, an analysis of air traffic data has revealed, with FIFO workers in the west driving much of the demand.
That’s despite lockdowns grounding flights, decimating profits across the aviation industry and emptying the country’s busiest airports including Sydney Airport and Melbourne Airport.
The increase in flight volume across regional Western Australia has mirrored the buoyancy in the price of resources and the state’s renewed appetite for mining exploration.
At Boolgeeda, the Pilbara airport which services Rio Tinto’s Brockman 4 iron ore mine, Virgin Australia is landing up to a dozen times a day at the moment.
Callion Airport, which sat disused in 2019, has welcomed hundreds of flights this year as Ora Banda ramps up its Davyhurst Gold Mine.
And traffic at Ravensthorpe, which services First Quantum’s nickel mine west of Esperance, is this year already around 70 per cent above 2019 levels.
An analysis of data from flightaware.com shows they are among hundreds of Australian airports – mostly in regional Western Australia – that have seen an increase in traffic during the pandemic.
The number of extra flights these airports are receiving are a fraction of those the industry has lost, and the data only captures the number of flights – not the size of the plane or the number of passengers.
But in WA, they reflect one of the big positives in the economy at large, and are one of the few glimmers of light in an otherwise gloomy time for aviation.
“Talking to major airlines, WA’s about the only line item in black for them at the moment,” said Rob Carruthers, the Director of Policy and Advocacy at the Chamber of Minerals and Energy Western Australia.
“Qantas is running a bunch more Airbus A320s, whereas previously they were running smaller aircrafts.
“The charter flights that are often direct to private mine sites have increased pretty considerably since pre-pandemic times.
“We’ve worked pretty closely with [the aviation industry] during the pandemic. We’ve done everything that we can to keep on going, and they responded amazingly.”
Keeping the industry COVID-free and in full swing helped the state deliver a $5.6 billion surplus in this month’s budget.
It’s also been a small win for Perth Airport, the hub for most of these flights. Arrivals and departures have fallen less drastically there than at its major counterparts on thh east coast.
Through parts of the pandemic, Perth had the busiest runways in the country. And while Sydney and Melbourne slumped to previously unthinkable lows, it notched up its busiest June for regional passenger numbers on record, the airport said.
Almost 4.5 million regional passengers passed through the airport in the last financial year, it said, an 11 per cent jump on the comparable period prior to the pandemic.
“The resources sector relies heavily on its FIFO workforce, and those workers rely on Perth Airport to get them safely on their way to where they are needed and to help bring them home again,” its Chief Operating Officer, Scott Woodward, said.
Despite “some big financial losses” – overall passenger numbers are down almost two-thirds – the airport has “done the right thing by Western Australia by keeping our runways and terminals operating”, Woodward said.
“Perth Airport has made significant sacrifices to remain operational during Covid to keep the State’s FIFO workforce flying.”
Over east, domestic holiday makers helped Ballina‘s Byron Gateway airport record the second biggest increase in arrival and departure last financial year (when compared to 2019), behind only Toowoomba’s Wellcamp.
But those gains are well and truly dwarfed by losses elsewhere, Tourism & Transport Forum Chief Executive Margy Osmond says.
“While there certainly have been some key tourism destinations that have experienced greater numbers of passengers through their airports, this was mainly due to travel within their own states due to the uncertainty around domestic borders.
“It was also prior to the latest round of state lockdowns, which still remain in place.”
She says passenger numbers to the Sunshine Coast have been down as much as 95% in recent months, with similar losses in Cairns and Far North Queensland.
“What the sector needs from both federal and state governments is a continued clear pathway to both interstate and international reopening well before the end of the year, so Australians can plan their summer holiday travel with certainty and confidence and start making bookings today.”
Could the correction in iron prices also see the skies go quiet over Western Australia? Rob Carruthers doesn’t think so.
“I expect the production landscape to remain strong through the mid-term. All the major producers have strong guidance around maintaining and incrementally increasing production.
“Clearly the demand for iron ore is going to be predominantly met by Western Australia producers in the short and medium term.”