Australia's busiest flight route no longer includes Sydney or Melbourne

You'll no longer find Sydney or Melbourne on Australia's busiest air route, thanks to COVID-19 border closures. 

Regional and intra-state routes now dominate the list of top domestic flying destinations with Australian airlines preparing to boost capital city flights as state borders slowly re-open.

The Tasmanian government announced on Monday it will open the state to NSW on November 2, provided NSW avoids a spike in COVID-19 cases.

Travellers from Queensland, South Australia and the ACT can visit the Apple Isle from next Monday with both Qantas and Virgin keen to ramp up their network capacity.

Qantas data shows the airline's most popular domestic route in the September-October school holidays was Brisbane to Cairns, up from the 14th most popular route this time last year.

In second place was Perth-Broome and third was Brisbane-Townsville. South Australia's decision to allow quarantine-free travel from NSW saw Sydney-Adelaide land fourth on the list, with Canberra-Brisbane rounding out the top five.

In 2019 the top routes were the "golden triangle" between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, as well as Melbourne-Perth and Melbourne-Adelaide.

Victoria's importance to the Australian aviation network is highlighted by Melbourne's presence in four of the top five routes from this time last year.

Before the coronavirus pandemic the Sydney-Melbourne route consistently ranked among the busiest flight paths in the world.


Qantas launched a daily Sydney-Ballina flight in July and by September had increased services to four per day.

A Qantas spokeswoman said flight capacity has equalled or exceeded pre-COVID levels on several domestic and regional routes including Perth-Broome, Brisbane-Longreach, and Adelaide-Alice Springs. The Brisbane-Hamilton Island route has three times as many seats available compared to the same time last year.

CAPA Centre for Aviation chairman and veteran analyst Peter Harbison said the data was a stark reminder of how the second wave of COVID-19 had hobbled the travel industry's recovery.

"We anticipated as the first wave subsided, the domestic tourism market would quickly take off," Mr Harbison said.

"That wasn't to be, but what we've seen on the intra-state and few other routes that are open is a substantial keenness to fly. That's really encouraging for holidaymakers and domestic tourism operators because, barring any major new flare-up, most interstate routes should open up and the Christmas period will be boomtime for leisure travel.

"But – and it's a big but – we can't be certain that health and politics will allow that. Probably a safer bet is that we'll be at about 50 to 60 per cent of 2019 domestic levels by year-end."

Qantas domestic chief executive Andrew David said state and international border closures meant people were adapting their travelling habits.

"The spike in bookings over the school holidays is a positive sign for the whole tourism industry and helped get more of our people back to work," he said.

The Qantas data excludes Jetstar flights as well as mining routes such as Brisbane to Mackay and Perth to Karratha, Port Hedland and Newman.

A Virgin spokesman said the airline plans to increase services between Tasmania and the mainland in coming weeks.

"We remain hopeful that other states will follow Tasmania to safely re-open their borders so that we can reboot the tourism and aviation industries which rely on a connected nation."

Qantas' top five busiest routes during COVID-19

  1. Brisbane-Cairns (14th last year)
  2. Perth-Broome (20th)
  3. Brisbane-Townsville (11th)
  4. Sydney-Adelaide (8th)
  5. Canberra-Brisbane (17th)

Last year's top five

  1. Melbourne-Sydney
  2. Brisbane-Sydney
  3. Brisbane-Melbourne
  4. Adelaide-Melbourne
  5. Melbourne-Perth

See also: Qantas confirms rescue flights to bring stranded Aussies home

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