Qantas, Virgin head office staff on frontline as airports brace for returning travellers

Hundreds of head office staff from Qantas and Virgin will be on the frontline at airports over the Anzac Day weekend to avoid a repeat of the passenger hold-ups that caught carriers flatfooted during Easter.

Airports are bracing for an influx of passengers as the school holidays, Easter and Anzac Day period marked a turning point for airlines and the highest demand for travel since the COVID pandemic.

Melbourne Airport has seen its busiest period since before the pandemic began. Credit:Luis Ascui

Delays over the Easter weekend led to thousands of passengers flying without their bags and airlines promising to courier luggage to their destinations. While most have now received their luggage, some travellers waited days for their bags to arrive.

This weekend, several hundred Qantas senior managers will volunteer at airports and assist with baggage. Virgin Australia said all available operational staff are helping at airports.

On top of staff shortages at the airlines and among contractors, Melbourne Airport has 120 jobs vacant in security, cleaning, maintenance and management after federal funds for the aviation sector during the pandemic didn’t cover airports or ground handlers. The airport is now working with councils to source nearby residents for the unfilled roles.

“We’re expecting demand for travel over the Anzac Day long weekend will again be high,” a Melbourne Airport spokesman said.

“Melbourne Airport corporate staff have been assisting passengers in the terminals during periods of peak demand to help take some of the pressure off airline staff.”

Uncollected luggage from disruptions at Sydney Airport earlier this week.

Qantas and Jetstar were due to fly about 400,000 passengers between Friday and Anzac Day, while Virgin Australia would not offer a specific figure but said hundreds of thousands of passengers were set to travel.

Sydney resident Julie, who did not want to disclose her last name, was separated from her luggage after flying to Melbourne with Qantas on Good Friday. Her bag arrived at her Sydney address six days later after she spent about $400 on items for the holiday – money she believed could only be partially compensated with travel insurance.

“I find the whole thing is so unbelievable from a national carrier,” she said. “We spend a lot of money on Qantas, we are frequent flyers, it is just not what you expect.”

A Qantas spokesman said delayed baggage had now returned to normal levels, with fewer than 200 items yet to be reunited with customers because of difficulties making contact.

The Business Council of Australia has called the delays “inevitable” after the workforce in some airports declined as much as 40 per cent during two years of economic shutdowns, but Transport Workers Union national assistant secretary Nick McIntosh said there was no short-term fix to the underlying problem.

He blamed the Easter scenes on Qantas outsourcing baggage handling and cabin cleaning to aviation service provider Swissport in 2021 under an increasingly casualised workforce. “We anticipate there will be issues again,” McIntosh said. “Just putting some head office staff in will not magically resolve the issues.”

Qantas has rejected the union’s claims, saying aviation is no different from other industries that have been impacted by isolation requirements and COVID cases. Swissport was unable to respond by deadline.

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