Virgin grounds international fleet for two months

Virgin Australia will stop all international flights for two months, including its flights to Samoa.

This is in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday morning, Virgin announced it would suspend all international flights from March 30 to June 14, and having its domestic Australian routes too, grounding 53 aircrafts. 

There will also be a reduced international schedule for the next two weeks.

Chief Executive Officer, Paul Scurrah, said the global aviation industry is entering an “unprecedented time.”

“[That] has required us to take significant action to responsibly manage our business while balancing traveller demands and supporting the wellbeing of Australians.”

Under Government of Samoa restrictions, Virgin Australia was permitted to fly just three flights a week between Australia and Samoa, none of which will fly during the mass suspension.

“We are also acutely aware of the important role airlines play in supporting connectivity, tourism and the nation’s economy, and are maintaining most of our domestic routes, and instead reducing frequencies in our schedule,” Mr. Scurrah said of the changes.

Benje Patterson, an Aviation expert and economist said Samoa will certainly see less flights connecting them to the region and beyond over the coming months. 

“Globally this is a very challenging time for the aviation sector and there are going to be countless airlines that fall into bankruptcy,” he said.

“Already we have seen some governments begin to step up and offer financial means to the airlines to help tide them over but the reality is they may not be enough to save airlines like Virgin Australia.

“There are going to be more limited connections over the next months to Samoa, part of that is because the Samoan Government has asked that there are less flights and part of it is simply a lack of demand.”

The announcement comes just days after Air New Zealand revealed it would have to cut down 85 per cent of its international long haul flights and look at letting 3,750 staff go.

Qantas and Jetsar have also announced a 90 per cent cut to international capacity and 60 per cent to domestic capacity until at least the end of May.

The measles epidemic, compounded by a global slowdown in demand for flights in recent times means airlines were struggling even before the coronavirus. 

“We had already seen some airlines globally cut back their flight capacity in response to slightly weaker demand for air travel, but the coronavirus is just so, so different,” said Mr. Patterson. 

“It has completely changed the landscape and will continue to have an effect even when the situation is eventually resolved.”

Unlike a solely economic crash, the public health emergency at hand will be changing how people feel about long haul air travel, making them more cautious and less eager to travel long distances, Mr. Patterson predicts.

“It’s unlikely the recovery for airlines will be the same as following the global financial crisis where it was just a money problem that got solved.”

While Air New Zealand will be keeping flights going to maintain trade routes and get essential goods and services across the region and its majority shareholder the New Zealand Government will be injecting much needed cash into its operations.

For others like Virgin Australia, the financial impact of the coronavirus may not be survivable.  Aviation expert Neil Hansford told ABC News he does not believe the airline will make it past their two month suspension of flights, even with support from the Australian Government.

All airlines will be feeling the pinch, Mr. Patterson said. 

“There is no real economic way to run airlines at present.

“Planes are expensive to fly around, to make a profit you need your plane at 70 or 80 per cent full and there is not enough people wanting to jump in the planes or because of travel restrictions, effectively people cannot.

In Samoa, where the local airline is also Government owned, Mr. Patterson said various measures will have to be taken to keep the business afloat. 

Some countries have suspended landing fees or taxes to reduce airline expenses, while others are delivering actual cash packages. 

“In small countries that don’t have a large population base and cannot support multiple airlines, where there is only one [airline] it is really necessary to connect people together,” he said. 

“Those are elements of air travel in Samoa that are important and should be factored into any Government decision regarding the scale and scope of their investment in aviation.”  

Virgin Australia had not responded to emailed questions by press time. 

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