Today’s ash crisis for people flying in south-east Australia was not the surprise to the airlines that it may have appeared.
Briefings from the Australian Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre yesterday and this morning confirmed that by about 6pm on Sunday the airlines had been given advice of the risk that today’s events — which have closed Adelaide airport, and are now shutting down Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne airports — were even then a distinct probability.
For travellers, it has resulted in a very mixed report card on how promptly the airlines took action to alert passengers of likely delays or actual cancellations.
Yesterday, for example, Virgin Australia saved its passengers using Adelaide airport today from the frustrations of going to the airport only to be sent home. It promptly cancelled the flights a day in advance.
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Yet today it was way behind Qantas, Jetstar and Tiger Airways in warning passengers embarking on day-return business flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra that they might not actually make it home as intended.
Instead Virgin contradicted itself by saying at one stage it was waiting for a 10 am briefing from the ash advisory centre, yet at another moment claiming to be in continuous contact with it and the Bureau of Meteorology as to the outlook for flights.
Result. People made trips to the Virgin Australia terminals that Qantas and Jetstar passengers knew not to make.
But this is not just a Virgin Australia issue. It, like all the carriers, has at times been highly communicative about the delays, and at others, been sadly lacking.
Passengers are entitled to conclude that the eagerness to get them to the airports for the possibility of flying them has exceeded due consideration of the risks that the flights would not operate. This is a criticism that seemed very valid of Qantas yesterday, which was slow to cancel Adelaide flights compared to Virgin Australia, just as it is of Virgin Australia not updating its guidance to today’s travellers until well after 9am eastern time today when Qantas was warning of risks to Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne flights as early as 6.20am today.
It looks more like a case of “sales revenue before schedule” rather than the tired old mantra of “safety before schedule”.
In a clear dig at the carriers today, CASA also issued a media statement warning them of its enhanced vigilance in terms of their meeting their obligation not to fly through volcanic ash plumes. The CASA statement was not remarkable for what it said, but the fact that it saw a need to say it.