Home » Canberra Airport is taking on overseas travel again, but keeping it could prove a challenge

Canberra Airport is taking on overseas travel again, but keeping it could prove a challenge

Direct international flights for Canberrans are now back on the table, with not one but two carriers committed to servicing the capital region.

Last week, Indonesian-based Batik Air announced it would operate three flights a week from July onwards, connecting Canberra directly with Denpasar, Bali.

That followed Fiji Airways which has been flying direct from Canberra to Nadi multiple times a week since last July.

Airport executives, alongside the ACT government, say the routes are viable because of the multiple onward connections Canberrans can make from each port.

But an aviation expert has warned predicting demand for flights from smaller markets like Canberra, and keeping prices competitive over time, could prove a challenge.

Canberra Airport has struggled to keep international carriers in the past

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr (left) says smaller carriers like Batik Air and Fiji Airways are more realistic for Canberra airport at the moment.(ABC News: Lottie Twyford)

Recent history shows the city’s airport has struggled to maintain international services, with the pandemic serving as the final nail in the coffin for Singapore Airlines and Qatar Airways.

Singapore Airlines, in particular, struggled with lacklustre passenger numbers and was forced to can its Canberra-Wellington connection in 2018, only two years after it first touched down.

Despite multiple promises from Qatar Airways to resume flights in the years following the pandemic, the airline has repeatedly pushed these back and it’s unclear if that will happen. 

A return for Singapore Airlines is also without a timeline, although the ACT government has been lobbying for it to return and says more talks will take place in the coming weeks.

So, what’s different this time?

ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr, who has long been involved in lobbying for international airlines to fly to Canberra, acknowledged there had been problems with demand in the past.

Mr Barr said the smaller carriers like Batik Air and Fiji Airways, which operated smaller planes than companies like Qatar Airways and Singapore Airlines, were more “realistic” for the airport at the moment.

Batik Air will operate a 737-800 which is a 162-seat plane, much smaller than the plane Singapore Airlines was flying to Wellington, which had 270 seats.

“That’s a lot of seats to fill,” the chief minister said.

“What makes this different is the size of the aircraft, the number of flights, the popularity of the destination and the network that Batik Air brings.”

Expert says smaller carriers and smaller airports face an uphill battle

A departures board in an airport.

Batik Air expects around 70 per cent of demand for its Bali connection will come from Canberrans wanting to go on holiday.(ABC News: Lottie Twyford)

Head of aviation at Central Queensland University Professor Doug Drury said there was a challenging road ahead for Fiji Airways and Batik Air.

He said predicting demand from a small market like the Canberra region would be difficult and would only remain viable for as long as those aircraft could be filled.

“You need that density to perform and to pay for that flight because it’s so very expensive to operate modern aircraft these days,” Professor Drury said.

Likewise, he said the bigger carriers leaving larger cities would still be able to compete with both Batik and Fiji Airways by having lower fares.

But he said this could be counteracted by the “convenience” of flying from a home city.

“And the quality of service on these airlines as well will also depend on who returns on these flights,” he said.

The final challenge which Professor Drury predicted were seasonal changes — as he doubted many people would be tempted to leave Canberra’s heat for Fiji or Bali during the summer months.

Inbound travellers also hoped for

It’s hoped there will be some kind of two-way traffic on the new Bali routes, particularly as Canberra’s post-pandemic international visitor numbers had yet to recover in the same way domestic visitors have.

Batik Air expected around 70 per cent of demand for its Bali connection would come from Canberrans wanting to go on holiday themselves.

But Mr Barr hoped international students coming from countries like Nepal, the Philippines, India and China would also pick the route as a cheaper option for getting to Canberra.

“We’re not overstating that there’s going to be tens of thousands of people inbound … but there will be thousands and that’s an important part of the service,” he noted.

Tourism operators say getting Canberra’s name out there important

A woman with long dark hair and glasses smiles.

Canberra Region Tourism Industry Council CEO Naomi Dale says having more carriers flying into the capital is good news for the city’s tourism operators.(ABC News: Lottie Twyford)

The ACT government expects the partnership to rake in millions of dollars a year for the ACT’s economy.

Mr Barr said it formed part of a broader strategy of making it cheaper to fly into Canberra from overseas.

CEO of Canberra Region Tourism Industry Council Dr Naomi Dale said it was good news for the city’s tourism operators to see more carriers flying into the capital.

She agreed with the government that international students and their families was a big source of visitors of the region.

“The visiting friends and relatives [is] part of that so when their family comes over to see them and check out where they are living, but also coming across for graduation,” she explained.

But Dr Dale said she’d like to see more tourists visiting Canberra as a holiday destination in its own right.

Looking to the future

Both the airport and the ACT government hope to bring additional international carriers to the airport.

“We’ve made no secret of wanting to pursue a partnership with Qantas through Auckland to New York as an example,” Mr Barr said.

“And clearly we’re interested in opportunities in India and China.”

As for Batik Air, it’s in it for the long-haul.

Group strategy director Chandran Rama Muthy said there are hopes the ariline can increase its flights to four times a week or even daily if there’s the demand for it from the local market.