SYDNEY - Australian travel has finally resumed after two years of restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but travellers have faced chaos as airports and airlines struggle to cope with the renewed demand.
The current two-week Easter school holiday period, which ends this week, has seen passengers forced to endure queues lasting hours at airports in the nation's biggest cities - Sydney and Melbourne.
Last week, at Sydney's domestic terminal, which mainly handles Jetstar and Virgin flights, lines to drop off luggage and to pass through security snaked through the building and onto the footpath outside.
Some passengers arrived at the terminal at 4am to start queueing; others reported standing in line for more than three hours.
The problems at major airports were partly due to the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak, which meant large numbers of baggage and ground handlers, as well as security staff, were unable to work because they caught the disease or were close contacts of those infected.
In New South Wales (NSW), the government changed its restrictions to allow air transport staff who were close contacts to work rather than isolate for seven days. NSW and the state of Victoria both announced on Wednesday (April 20) that isolation for all close contacts will end from Friday.
Australia recorded 50,966 new cases on Wednesday, down from a peak of more than 100,000 daily cases in January. There were 3,328 Covid-19 patients in hospitals in Australia on Wednesday and 161 in intensive care.
Australia had some of the world's strictest border closures during the height of the pandemic, but all domestic and international closures were lifted in early March.
This meant that the past two weeks were the first major test for the travel sector as airlines and airports geared up for the busy Easter holiday period.
Sydney airport's domestic terminals were reportedly due to handle more than 80,000 travellers a day for the first time since March 2020.
But the experience for many travellers has been shambolic.
Qantas, the national carrier, forced customers to wait for hours on the phone to speak to customer service staff. The demand at call centres increased as large numbers of passengers needed to switch flights due to Covid-19 infections or changes to border restrictions and travel rules.
Qantas apologised in a statement on April 7, saying that it was continuing to train new call centre staff. It said it was receiving an average of 14,000 calls a day, up from 7,500 before the pandemic.
An online petition demanding that Qantas improve customer service had received more than 21,000 signatures as at Wednesday. Several people who left comments on the petition page at the change.org website said they had waited for three hours or more.
Qantas is also facing criticism over its scheme for giving passengers credits for cancelled flights. Many passengers have been assigned credits for flights cancelled due to the pandemic.
The consumer advocacy group Choice said last week it had lodged a formal complaint with the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission over concerns that Qantas was making it too difficult for passengers to use their credits.
"This includes forcing many people to spend extra money, limits on available flights, problems with online services, unfair expiry dates and long wait times in their call centres," said Choice spokesman Dean Price.
In response, Qantas said it had eased its rules for travellers experiencing flight changes since the start of the pandemic.
The next test for the travel industry will be this weekend, as the Easter holiday period ends and the nation has a public holiday on Monday to remember Australian soldiers who died at war.
Sydney Airport has advised those travelling this weekend to arrive at least two hours before domestic flights and three hours before international flights.
"We have significant Covid-19-related staff shortages and we're also working to rebuild our workforce in a really tight job market," an airport spokesman told The New Daily website.