Jetstar faltered significantly for the first time since it began flying five years ago in its contribution to the Qantas group traffic figures for May, dropping passenger numbers by –1.6% for the month compared to a year ago.

The backward step by the low cost brand added to a poor month by Qantas domestic with the full service brand loosing –4.7% of passengers compared to May 2008.

The figures also show continued divergent flight paths by the Virgin brands (Virgin Blue, Pacific Blue and V Australia) which grew total passengers by 10% in the 11 months to the end of May, compared to –1.6% declines in aggregate by the Qantas brands (Qantas domestic, Qantas regional, Qantas international, Jetstar domestic and Jetstar International).

However the Virgin brands figures do not reveal yields, or therefore any insight into the acknowledged overall losses they are expected to post because of the poorly timed entry of V Australia to the Australia-US routes.

The Qantas filing to the ASX this morning says total domestic yields have fallen by –4.7% for the 11 months to the end of May, with the international yields off by –2.6%.

The unexpected drop in the May figures for Jetstar comes just prior to this week’s launch of real competition between itself and Tiger Airways, as its Singapore Airlines controlled imitator enters the Melbourne-Sydney market.

Successive Qantas managements have declared Jetstar to be the key to the group’s survival, and its defence of its most valuable domestic route is expected to rack up losses on the sector in both its low cost and full service flights.

Put in perspective, the Qantas figures are stellar by world standards. In the Australian context, they show its market share, as reported yesterday , is in decline despite Jetstar, with Virgin Blue growing 5.1% by passengers boarded in the 11 months to the end of May compared to Qantas domestic contracting by –4.5%.

In other developments Virgin Blue is said to have approached Hong Kong airport over the availability of slots if it were to decide to launch V Australia 777 services to augment the Virgin Atlantic London-Sydney flights that already use that hub.

It is a further sign that Virgin Blue is in the process of deciding where to deploy more of the 777s originally ordered for US services.

Battle of the brands: 11 months to end of May.

Terminology: BUMS are passengers boarded, BUMS times kms equals revenue passenger kilometres or RPKs, SEATS times kms are available seat kilometres or ASKs and SOLD are the percentage of ASKs that became RPKs, or the load factor, expressed in % and showing the movement in % points.