An unprecedented wave of coronavirus infections in Australia — caused by the more infectious Delta variant — has plunged domestic passenger numbers in July to its lowest level this year, with the country’s competition watchdog calling it “a significant blow” to the industry.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) domestic airline competition report states that 1.3 million domestic passengers travelled in July, representing just 23% passengers travelled in the same month during pre-pandemic 2019. 


Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sydney Airport’s Terminal 3 in May 2021.

The ACCC notes that July’s dismal figure is the lowest since November 2020, when parts of eastern Australia were just emerging from a lockdown. 

Through June, the Delta variant swept through most of the eastern Australian states of Victoria and New South Wales, later reaching to other states such as Queensland and South Australia. Strict lockdowns were imposed in Victoria and New South Wales, including restrictions on inter-state travel. 

ACCC passenger numbers July 2021

Source: ACCC

Domestic passenger numbers and capacity from July 2019 to July 2021.

Consequently, airlines have had to cancel at least one-third of their flights in July, which the ACCC notes is “one of the highest rates on record”. 

The commission adds: “Passenger numbers are expected to have fallen further during August and September 2021 as lockdowns continued in a number of states and territories.” 

The report identifies the strict lockdowns in New South Wales and Victoria as one key reason why passenger numbers plunged to new lows. 

Weekly passenger numbers from Victoria state, for instance, fell from mid-May’s high of 333,000 to just 30,000 by early June, when the state was put under lockdown. 

ACCC weekly passenger numbers

Source: ACCC

Weekly domestic passenger numbers since the start of 2021.

In New South Wales, the decline is even starker — a 97% decrease between mid-June to end-July, when airlines carried just 9,000 passengers a week. 

As an unprecedented result of domestic border closures, routes in and out of Sydney Airport — traditionally the country’s busiest gateway — were not among the top 10 busiest routes in July, according to ACCC data. 

Instead, the busiest route in the month was Brisbane-Cairns — an interstate route in Queensland. Another three of the 10 busiest routes were also interstate flights in Western Australia and Queensland. 

ACCC chairman Rod Sims says: “July was the first time that Sydney hasn’t been among the 10 busiest routes in the country, which is a sign of the state of the industry.”

“The Delta outbreak has hit the domestic airline industry hard, and it has unfortunately halted the airlines’ recovery just as they were starting to approach pre-pandemic levels of flying,” he adds.