The days of cheap and easy air travel may be over, but Australian politicians seem oblivious

The days of cheap and easy air travel may be over, but Australian politicians seem oblivious

The days of cheap and easy air travel may be over, but Australian politicians seem oblivious

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<p><figcaption class=Photo: Diego Fedele / AAP

The headlines and hashtags focusing on “air-mageddon” and “being Joyced” do not include a fundamental point: air travel is unlikely to return to what it used to be, at least any time soon.

Australians living “at the end of the world” (a phrase attributed but denied by former Europhile Prime Minister Paul Keating) are dependent on mobility. Cheap air travel, based on large, efficient jets and low-cost airlines, has fostered an illusion of integration that is reversing.

One problem is the higher cost of domestic and international air travel, with basic tickets often exceeding 50%. At the pointed end of the plane, a return trip to the United States now costs about the same as a compact car.

The increases reflect the losses (approximately US $ 190 billion in 2020 and 2021) and increased debt (US $ 220 billion) that airlines have to recover or repay. There are additional costs for resuming operations – staff re-employment and training, reintroduction of aircraft – which are complicated by the shortage of skilled labor. Higher fuel prices, which account for up to a third of an airline’s costs, disruptions due to Covid-19, and airports unable to cope with increased flights add to operating expenses.

Related: How long will the chaos at Australian airports last?

Another obstacle is the increased uncertainty: forced cancellation due to isolation, possible exposure while traveling, potential quarantine re-imposition and stranding risk, all complicated by expensive and irregular travel insurance coverage.

While some problems will lessen as the pressures of “vengeance travel” (demand repressed after enforced pandemic imprisonment) diminish, others are structural. Rising oil prices (a limited resource) and climate change (aircraft emissions are difficult to eliminate) will continue to affect the cost of air travel.

Given its international isolation and large internal distances, the economic and social impact of expensive or more limited air travel to Australia is substantial.

Australia’s tourism revenue and educational exports support hundreds of thousands of jobs and communities and subsidize the country’s universities. In pre-pandemic 2019, some 28,000 international visitors arrived in Australia every day for leisure, study or work, spending around $ 65 billion, or 13% of exports and 3% of GDP. This relies almost entirely on efficient and affordable air links. The rise in tariffs makes Australia less competitive. Locals cannot fully compensate for the economic loss of the reduction in international arrivals.

Reduced mobility affects the movement of labor and goods. Primary industries are often located in remote areas and have to rely on fly-in fly-out labor, supplies and services. Australia is dependent on imports of many industrial and consumer goods. A high percentage, particularly perishable or time-sensitive items such as pharmaceuticals, 90% of which are foreign-made, are carried in the holds of passenger aircraft. Fewer flights equate to higher costs, delays and reduced availability.

Australia has relied on immigration for decades to support growth and meet workforce requirements. The higher travel costs make Australia a less favored destination, where the potential immigrant has a choice. The recurring expenses of visiting family and friends left behind can discourage potential candidates. Similarly, highly skilled contract workers on short-term contracts, who typically want to avoid disrupting family relocation, may be less willing to take positions.

Travel barriers affect life expectancy. Australians, who expect to travel overseas after graduation or retirement, may now have more limited choices. The post-pandemic world can see the affluent travel as they please while others have to save for the same opportunities. This inequity can fuel the already growing social tensions. Lack of exposure to different cultures can also increase existing xenophobia in Australia and complicate attitudes towards foreign affairs and development aid.

Policy makers seem oblivious to these problems despite promoting initiatives to increase immigration, attract short-term workers and increase tourism and foreign students, which all travel requires. Given the continent’s geography and economic dependence on mobility, transport links should be considered essential infrastructure. Yet there doesn’t seem to be a coherent strategy.

Australian domestic travel has evolved into a de facto monopoly with limited competition and choice. International connections are now limited as Qantas, the domestic carrier, focuses on profitable local destinations and foreign carriers have stopped or curtailed flights to Australia for commercial reasons.

After selling off national assets like airlines and airports, and embracing market solutions, the state is in an inadequate position to intervene. In a case of missed opportunities, the Australian government extended generous assistance to Qantas during the pandemic (approximately $ 2 billion) without seeking a shareholding or the ability to influence future operations.

Without attention to this issue, what American geographer William Bunge has called the “tyranny of distance” is likely to pursue post-Covid Australia’s recovery and future prospects.

• Satyajit Das is the author of Fortune’s Fool: Australia’s Choices (March 2022) and A Banquet of Consequences – Reloaded (March 2021)

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