WA braces for school holiday airport chaos as union warns things could be worse than July

With school holidays fast approaching, the aviation industry is working hard to avoid a repeat of the July holiday chaos — but the transport workers union has warned it may be worse this time around.

With the long weekends and footy finals also happening this month, millions of Australians are expected to pass through airports across the country.

WA school holidays begin this weekend, with around 40,000 passengers expected to travel through Perth Airport every day.

“I think we’re seeing it improving, it’s been a very difficult time,” Perth Airport CEO Kevin Brown said.

Mr Brown believes the aviation sector, which has been making operational changes in the wake of the July holiday disruptions, is already noticing an improvement in performance.

Perth Airport chief executive Kevin Brown is confident things are improving at Australian airports. (ABC News: Jon Sambell)

“I think we’re starting to see the turnaround of those aircraft and the cancellations reduce, which is great because I’m sure there’s a lot of people looking forward to catching up with a friends and family and having a well-earned break, he said.

Lessons learned after July chaos

The winter school holiday period saw the worst rates of cancellation and flight delays for the domestic airline industry in nearly two decades.

While nearly five million people flew domestically in July 2022, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) claimed the aviation industry was not “well placed” for the return of passengers.

An airport departure terminal full of people.
A crowded departure terminal at Perth Airport in July, when the winter school holidays were in full swing. (ABC News)

According to its latest domestic airline monitoring report, just 55 percent of flights arrived on time during that period, compared to the long-term average of 81.9 percent.

Long queues, delayed baggage and parking shortages were also common at airports nationwide

Transport Workers Union (TWU) WA secretary Tim Dawson said the industry was struggling to meet soaring demand amid staffing issues that stemmed from airlines sacking thousands of workers at the start of the pandemic.

And with a large proportion of the current workforce being less experienced, Mr Dawson said he expects the travel chaos to be the same – or even worse – these school holidays.

Tim Dawson from Transport Workers Union
Tim Dawson of the Transport Workers Union predicts more chaotic scenes at Perth Airport as the school holidays kick off.(ABC)

“Other industries have been able to get through COVID and continue with their workforces, so why is aviation any different? he said.

“It’s different because Alan Joyce sacked his workforce illegally.

“Now we have an aviation industry where the majority of the work is contracted out [and] it’s contracted out to companies who are paying low wages and have conditions that are not appropriate for what this valuable workforce should have.”

Mr Dawson said following the July holidays, Australians now probably have a “fairly low level of confidence” in airlines like Qantas.

“This has nothing to do with the people who work in the airports,” he said.

“They are doing their best under extreme circumstances where they are short staffed, where they are not trained properly because we have executives of airlines who are more interested in contracting work out on low and insecure jobs.”

Recruitment drive

Perth Airport is hoping to win people’s trust back by working closely with its airline partners to ensure travelers have the “smoothest journey possible.”

“We’ll be doing everything we can to make sure that people get away on time, safely and securely… that’s our key focus and that’s what we’re going to do,” Mr Brown said.

It’s also been trying to scale up its recruitment efforts through job fairs.

“We’ve had a very strong interest with over 7,000 applications, which is pretty phenomenal,” he said.

“And we’re putting our minds to not just this holiday, but obviously the next holidays that come up at the end of the year, which I’m sure will be an even busier time for a lot of people.”

An airport departure terminal full of people.
Perth Airport bosses are hopeful the delays of July will not be repeated. (ABC News)

However, the ACCC warns it may take the industry well into 2023 before workforce levels are where they need to be across the aviation supply chain.

In the meantime, the TWU would like to see a “Safe and Secure Skies” commission put in place to overhaul airline industry standards in a bid to get more skilled workers back.

“A commission will make sure that we have good paying [and] secure jobs in the aviation industry, that we have safe and secure skies and that when the traveling public go to the airport, they are confident that their plane will leave,” Mr Dawson said.

“There is no excuse for why a plane is not leaving on time, other than we have high paid executives who are not doing their job and have let down the traveling public of Australia.”

Delays not just at the airport

But it’s not just air travel that will see some disruptions these holidays.

Those heading down south are being warned to expect long delays and speed reductions as workers close a section of Bussell Highway near Capel to replace an 89-year-old timber bridge.

drone view of a road
Roadworks on the highway near Capel will cause headaches to holiday-makers traveling to WA’s South West.(ABC News: Anthony Pancia)

One kilometer of the southbound lane, located three kilometers north of Capel, will be closed until December with drivers diverted to the northbound carriageway, which will operate as one lane in each direction.

The speed limit has also been reduced to 60 kilometers per hour through the shared section.

With heavy traffic expected in the area, local police will be on high alert.

“Every peak period, being a long weekend or school holidays, we increase our efforts to make sure people out there can see us,” South West Superintendent Geoff Stewart said.

South West Superintendent, Geoff Stewart
South West Superintendent Geoff Stewart wants motorists to take care on their drives down south. (ABC News: Anthony Pancia)

“We all know someone who’s at risk of doing something dumb, tell them to stop it, because the end result can be that they’ve lost their own life or taken the lives of others.”

Businesses in the state’s south-west are also preparing for an influx of visitors to the region as they scramble to urgently fill vacancies.

Some restaurants like Burger Baby in Margaret River have been forced to reduce opening hours or close completely due to a lack of staff.

After struggling to find a chef, manager Amber Sullivan decided to try a different tactic and offer a “FIFO lifestyle” position, with four days on and three days off.

Amber Sullivan, Manager, Burger Baby restaurant, Margaret River
Amber Sullivan has struggled to recruit staff for her burger restaurant. (ABC News: Anthony Pancia)

“That seems to have triggered a lot of more interest,” she said.

“We kind of looked at what’s attractive to FIFO and that is, number one, the money and number two, the lifestyle.

“And that’s what’s missing out of a lot of chefs’ lives is the lifestyle, it’s very long hours, not a lot of thanks [and] your kind of back of house all the time.”

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