Wednesday, 31 May 2023

Victoria clarifies isolation rules for aircrew, ground staff amid delays at Melbourne Airport

Talking points

  • Airport workers in Victoria have been exempt from close-contact isolation rules since January.
  • Victorian authorities will on Tuesday clarify who this applies to, in an attempt to help reduce delays at Melbourne Airport.
  • Passenger movements through Melbourne Airport were as low as 600 people a day last year, but have reached 87,000 in recent days according to the state’s tourism industry council.

The Victorian government will clarify that airport workers who are close contacts of COVID-19 cases do not need to isolate, as crowds swell at Melbourne Airport ahead of the busiest Easter in two years.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton will on Tuesday amend current exemption criteria to specify that pilots, aircrew, baggage handlers and airport security staff do not need to isolate if someone they live with tests positive for the coronavirus.

Workers in these roles have been free from close-contact isolation requirements since January when exemptions for critical staff were introduced at the height of the Omicron peak, but a government source told The Age airlines were not “taking it up”.

Higher passenger demand over the past week has stretched the workforce capacity, and the number of staff isolating has begun to affect services. About 20 per cent of Qantas and Jetstar workers are currently on sick leave. In some locations, absenteeism has reached 50 per cent.

The airlines have implemented the exemption for close contacts in some roles ahead of the Easter rush and will talk to their workers on Tuesday.

Melbourne Airport expects about 1.4 million passengers to move through its terminals in the next two and a half weeks, as Victorians fly overseas and interstate to visit family and friends over the holiday period.

About 86,000 people travelled through the airport on Monday, when COVID-related staff shortages caused delays for passengers.

The airport was packed with families again on Tuesday morning, as a mechanical fault caused baggage issues for Qantas and Jetstar customers.

Nine News Melbourne reported some travellers had slept at the airport overnight to ensure they could board their flight, while others missed out on flying altogether after getting stuck in long queues.

Felicia Mariano, chief executive of the Victoria Tourism Industry Council, said the tourism industry was suffering from staffing challenges across the board.

“About eight months ago, movements at the airport were probably as low as about 600 passengers a day, and in the past couple of days, we’ve seen 85,500 to 87,000 movements through the airport,” she told radio station 3AW.

“When we lost JobKeeper in March last year, we knew that we were going to lose staff as a consequence of that because we couldn’t continue to keep people, and now everyone is actually really struggling.”

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said airlines and airports needed to employ additional staff to cope with the demand.

“It’s been a difficult time for our airline industry because of COVID, and we were there to support them financially through that,” Frydenberg said.

“But it’s clear that now, as the health restrictions have eased, Victorians, Australians are travelling much more freely and airports are buzzing again … both the airports and the airlines need to react appropriately and ensure that they’re appropriately staffed.”

New South Wales moved to exempt aviation workers from close COVID-19 contact rules on Saturday after a critical shortage of security screening staff caused major delays at Sydney Airport.

Thousands of people were trapped in long queues at the airport on Friday, as domestic travellers headed interstate for the school holidays and to the Formula One Grand Prix in Melbourne.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said blamed the woes on inexperienced passengers, newly hired security staff and a “high level of absenteeism” as a result of the COVID-19 close-contact rule.

Qantas and Virgin were contacted for comment.

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