A battle over Australian skies
The battle to recapture market share in the Australian skies heated up in April, with Qantas Airways and Virgin Australia waging war on a number of fronts throughout the month. The newly reformed Virgin Australia made no secret of its ambition to target a 33% share in the Australian domestic air market, and launched a number of initiatives in April to begin recapturing it. VA launched a special loyalty program focused on small & medium enterprises, the ‘Virgin Australia Business Flyer’ scheme (TD 05 Apr), which is free to join, and like the rival Qantas Business Rewards scheme, allows members to “double-dip”, by earning Velocity loyalty points for both their business and themselves. Later in the month, Virgin set about refreshing its fleet (TD breaking news 29 Apr), replacing a number of F100 jets, and introducing more Boeing 737 MAX 8s and 737-700s. In a further boost for business and loyalty fliers, Virgin also relaunched its secret “invitation-only” lounge concept in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane (TD 21 Apr).
However Qantas did not take the swipes from its newly reinvigorated competitor lying down. QF’s biggest announcement for the month was new routes, with flights to Bengaluru (TD 08 Apr), leveraging a recent free trade agreement between Australia and India and support from the NSW Government and Sydney Airport. The carrier went even bigger in South Korea, committing to new services to Seoul aboard both its Qantas and Jetstar Airways brands. The move saw the company’s full-service airline resuming a flight it had not flown in 15 years, and set Jetstar on the path to become the only low-cost carrier to fly from Sydney to South Korea. Not wanting rural Australia to miss out on the fun, Qantas also exercised its remaining four options on Alliance Aviation Services’ Embraer E190 jet fleet (TD 20 Apr), bringing the airline’s total fleet of this aircraft type to 18. QF also approved Indian software firm Verteil as an approved technology partner for its Qantas Distribution Platform (TD 11 Apr), but this trade-focused move was largely drowned out by negative press the airline received regarding unfair refund wait times (TD 07 Apr) and policy (TD 12 Apr), which it attempted to address by putting in place an automated repayment system (TD 20 Apr)…advantage Virgin?
The Middle East ramps up
The Middle East was another fierce battleground during April, with Qatar Tourism heaving its biggest push yet ahead of the FIFA World Cup later in the year. Qatar Tourism launched its international marketing campaign in Australia (TD 20 Apr), coincidentally just a few months before the Aussies confirmed their place in the World Cup with victory in a qualifying playoff. The effort is part of Qatar’s stated goal to attract six million visitors a year by 2030. However Emirates and its hub city of Dubai were not content to watch on from the bench, launching a platform for the airline’s customers to book bespoke itineraries in-market (TD 14 Apr). ‘Dubai Experiences’ offers customers exclusive benefits on flights, hotels, attractions, and other leisure activities, all of which can be customised, or pre-curated. If there’s one thing April made clear, it’s that Qatar is not the only Middle Eastern country preparing to attract visitors after the World Cup.
Cruise anticipation builds
The cruise sector continued to ride its wave of anticipation throughout April, with the first big news drop of the month courtesy of the Government of Western Australia, which gave the industry the go-ahead for later in the month (CW 04 Apr), in a staged manner. Following in suit not long after was Victoria, which prepared for its return of cruises later in the year by detailing a number of restrictions for passengers (CW 14 Apr). As expected, all passengers cruising to and from Victoria over the age of 12 would have to have received two doses of the COVID-19 vaccine, and return a negative coronavirus test before embarking – and neither of these measures was about to stop any cruise fan. A number of brands also began their ramp-up in preparation for sailing, including Ponant, which released a season of departures between April and October. P&O Cruises Australia also confirmed the repatriation of its flagship Pacific Explorer to Sydney, which it set for Easter Monday (CW 11 Apr). The timing of the return with the Christian festival of rebirth was lost on absolutely no-one within the cruise industry.
VA chases codeshares
The next step for Virgin Australia’s rebirth within the country’s airline market was the recapturing of codeshare agreements, with a concerted series of announcements targeting international growth. Virgin and Qatar Airways unveiled a new strategic partnership (TD 11 May), which included a comprehensive bilateral codeshare agreement, and the very next day, the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission (ACCC) ticked a VA codeshare pricing arrangement with United Airlines – and by extension other similar international carrier partners (TD 12 May). The agreement was initially criticised by Qantas Airways, which raised concerns Virgin was bucking the traditional arm’s length codeshare pricing model (TD 10 May).
Qantas invests in the future
That said, there was plenty in Qantas’ own backyard keeping it busy in May. Qantas minted its own partnership, with holiday package platform TripADeal (TD 24 Apr), which saw the airline become a majority stakeholder, with a 51% interest. QF Chief Executive Officer Alan Joyce spoke of big plans for TripADeal, which he believes will treble in size over the coming years. May also saw Qantas’ long-awaited Project Sunrise – now delayed multiple years due to the pandemic – finally take a proper shape, with the airline’s purchase of 12 Airbus A350s intended to serve the route (TD 02 May). However, one of Qantas’ moves for the month – the announcement of a plan to acquire the remaining stake in Alliance Aviation Services (TD 05 May) – was itself probed by the ACCC, which noted an overlap in supply between the two companies, and sought input from parties regarding the takeover. Qantas controversially acquired 19.9% of Alliance in early 2019, at a time when the latter airline was a key supplier to Virgin.
Back in black
May also saw a number of the Australian travel industry’s key players return to the black, in what was hoped to be a literal and figurative end to two years of COVID hell. Flight Centre was first to go public with the news (TD 04 May), indicating its strong global sales momentum had a few months earlier finally seen it reach profitability on an underlying EBITDA basis. Next to announce its turnaround was Webjet, with the business returning to profitability in the second half of the fiscal year (TD 19 May). Webjet said turnaround of the now cash flow-positive company was spurred on by its WebBeds accommodation operation, and also reflected the investments it made during the pandemic.
Cruise looks up
After a literal return for the cruise sector to local waters the prior month, a surge in its international appeal also began in May, with demand from Australia trending upward. Holland America shared its optimism with Cruise Weekly, with now-departed Senior Director of Sales Australia Tony Archbold saying his line was looking to Australia as one of its most important markets (CW 02 May). This was going to be especially important for Holland America in the coming months, as the cruise line begun its return to one of its flagship markets of Alaska – a destination enormously popular among Australians. Booking patterns had also changed for Oceania Cruises, with Australians eyeing of the brand’s close-to-home sailings (CW 04 May), which would commence later in the year. Oceania revealed to Cruise Weekly Australian sailings were selling hotly, even in place of more traditionally popular markets. Royal Caribbean also curried favour with Australians in May, with local Vice President & Managing Director Gavin Smith telling Cruise Weekly the cruise line is considering a year-round Australian deployment (CW 06 May) – a move which would shatter the status quo of seasonality in the market.
Sights set on Aus
With the tourism industry recovering both in Australia and globally, the world’s destinations once again began reaching out to local travellers during the month of June. Tourism Fiji unveiled ambitions to return to pre-pandemic visitor numbers by 2024, by when it hopes to to hit the one million international visitors per year mark (TD 02 Jun), representing around FJ$$3.3 billion (A$2.12 billion) to the country’s economy. Fiji was not the only South Pacific island active in the marketplace in June, with the Samoa Tourism Authority revealing to Travel Daily its plan to mobilise a dedicated support team to grow targeted sales incentive programs in Australia (TD 20 Jun). Ireland also plotted a local marketing spree in June (TD 29 Jun), as it planned to reactive its presence in the Australian consumer market. The destination management organisation had the strong backing of the Irish Government, which was seeking to reignite the country’s visitation from key markets, including Australia. Lastly, while it is not a country (though it is so big it may as well declare independence), Disney too was reminding the trade of vitality to its distribution strategy (TD 06 Jun), with new arrangements implemented during the pandemic positioning travel advisors as a key channel to ensure travellers make the most of their experience. Speaking to Travel Daily Vice President of Marketing & Sales International Jeff van Langeveld said it was important agents are aware of Disney’s new system, which requires park reservations, as well as traditional multi-day passes.
Flight Centre’s new incentive
June also saw Flight Centre roll out a new multi-million-dollar staff retention initiative, which will reward employees who stay with the company until the end of 2023. From August, about 10,000 sales and support staff across the globe begun to benefit from the new Global Retention Rights plan, which offers a one-off grant of share rights worth about $3,750. It repeated a similar offer for 2022 launched by Flight Centre in mid-2021. Managing Director Graham Turner said the move was a targeted response to the impact of COVID-19 on the overall Flight Centre business.
A&K’s busy month
However perhaps the busiest company in June was Abercrombie & Kent (A&K), which fresh off the addition of Managing Director Australia Deb Fox, announced its acquisition of the defunct Crystal Cruises brand (TD 23 June), which included two of its ships – Crystal Serenity and Crystal Symphony. The sale was made at an auction during the month, with Serenity going for USD$103 million and Symphony going for USD$25 million. A&K revealed itself to be the buyer not long after, and following the disclosure, also announced it had recruited Susan Haberle to the role of Head of Sales & Partnerships (TD 29 June). During the pandemic, Haberle ran her own consultancy, The Inspire Collective, an operation she co-founded with Fox – the woman who has now hired her at A&K. Prior to the pandemic, Haberle spent 13 years with APT Travel Group, working across a range of roles.
Carnival & Costa
Carnival Cruise Line in June announced plans to deploy a second ship in the Australian market over the 2022/23 summer season, with the additional vessel expected to operate out of the new Brisbane International Cruise Terminal (CW 08 June). The move was revealed in Cruse Weekly by President & Chief Executive Officer Christine Duffy, who couldn’t confirm exact details of the second ship at the time – which was later revealed to by Costa Luminosa.