Melbourne Airport delays cause state government to clarify isolation rules for airport staff

Check-in appeared to be running smoothly at other airlines, however, baggage issues persisted for Qantas and Jetstar customers earlier in the morning.

Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton on Tuesday amended exemption criteria to specify that pilots, aircrew, baggage handlers and airport security staff do not need to isolate if someone they live with tests positive for the coronavirus.

Workers in these roles have been free from close-contact isolation requirements since January when exemptions for critical staff were introduced at the height of the Omicron peak, but a government source told The Age airlines were not “taking it up”.

Higher passenger demand over the past week has stretched workforce capacity, and the number of staff isolating has begun to affect services. About 20 per cent of Qantas and Jetstar workers are currently on sick leave and in some locations the proportion not at work has reached 50 per cent.

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Qantas and Jetstar said they had implemented the exemption for close contacts in some roles.

While Virgin has not spoken about the isolation rules specifically, it has put on additional resources to deal with the Easter school holiday rush.

NSW moved to exempt aviation workers from COVID-19 close contact rules on Saturday after a critical shortage of security screening staff caused major delays at Sydney Airport.

The company that holds the security contract at Sydney Airport, Certis Group, has also offered employees $50 Woolworths gift cards in an attempt to fill shifts.

Virgin passenger Lieha Harding, flying home from Melbourne on Tuesday, said she experienced “the worst airline queue I’ve ever stood in” at Sydney Airport on Thursday.

As an immunocompromised person, she worried about people having COVID-19 if they were exempt from isolating, however, she said, “I think there’s a difference between waiting a little bit longer and doing probably 2½ hours of queuing for an hour-long flight ”.

Lieha and James Harding were among those hours early for their flight on Tuesday.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Melbourne Airport expects about 1.4 million passengers to move through its terminals in the next 2½ weeks, as Victorians fly overseas and interstate to visit family and friends over the holiday period.

About 86,000 people traveled through the airport on Monday, when COVID-related staff shortages and mechanical faults caused delays for passengers.

Nine News Melbourne reported some travelers slept at the airport overnight to ensure they could board their flight, while others missed out on flying after getting stuck in long queues.

Thousands of people were trapped in long queues at the airport on Friday as domestic travelers headed interstate for the school holidays and to the Formula 1 grand prix in Melbourne.

Federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said airlines and airports needed to employ additional staff to cope with the demand.

“It’s been a difficult time for our airline industry because of COVID, and we were there to support them financially through that,” Frydenberg said.

“But it’s clear that now, as the health restrictions have eased, Victorians, Australians are traveling much more freely and airports are buzzing again … both the airports and the airlines need to react appropriately and ensure that they’re appropriately staffed.”

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The Australian Services Union said Qantas let go 800 of its members working at the airline’s call centers over the past few years, and all of its customer service staff in airports during the pandemic.

Transport Workers’ Union Victorian assistant secretary Mem Suleyman said the Federal Court found last year that about 2000 Qantas and Jetstar workers were sacked and outsourced in breach of the Fair Work Act.

“Around 400 to 500 of these jobs were Melbourne-based baggage handlers, cleaners, and aircraft loaders,” he said.

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