Cheap flights could be the result of coronavirus as airlines struggle to fill seats

Cheaper airfares could be on the horizon, aviation experts say, as airlines struggle to fill planes due to the coronavirus epidemic that is weakening global demand for travel.

Thousands of Qantas and Jetstar passengers had their flights cancelled on Thursday after the airlines adjusted their schedules, with flights to Asia the hardest hit.

Peter Harbison, executive chairman of industry intelligence firm CAPA Centre for Aviation, said as a broad principle "bad news for the airline is usually good news for consumers".

Mr Harbison predicted the impacts of the coronavirus outbreak will be "much bigger" than anticipated and could result in slashed airfares as demand for travel weakens further.

"The airlines are going to have to respond to that with lower fares," he said.

"Beyond Easter there will be some good offers going out because airlines are very hungry for cashflow, so they will be wanting to fill up those seats.

"You can only stimulate people back into the market with lower prices."

The Qantas Group flight cancellations are in place until at least June, with total cancellations equivalent to grounding 18 aircraft and suspending 700 full-time roles.

Flights to Asia are hardest hit, with Qantas slashing 16 per cent of capacity and Jetstar cutting Japan and Thailand routes by 14 per cent.


Weekly Qantas flights between Sydney and Hong Kong have been halved from 14 to seven. Melbourne-Hong Kong and Brisbane-Hong Kong will both reduce from seven flights a week to five and four respectively, while Melbourne-Singapore will downsize from an Airbus A380 to a smaller Boeing 787.

Virgin Australia stopped its Melbourne-Hong Kong route earlier this month and announced it would cease Sydney flights to the city in early March.

Jetstar flights from Cairns and the Gold Coast to Japan, and from Sydney and Melbourne to Phuket, will reduce by up to two flights a week.

Qantas flights across the Tasman are also trimmed by 6 per cent with reduced frequencies between Sydney-Auckland, Melbourne-Auckland and Brisbane-Christchurch. Jetstar's trans-Tasman flights are reduced by 5 per cent.

Domestically there is a 2.3 per cent cut in flights, although that includes cancellations over summer due to Jetstar's industrial action. Most of the cuts are from routes with high frequency, such as Melbourne-Sydney and Sydney-Brisbane. Regional services on QantasLink remain largely unaffected.

Affected passengers will be contacted and offered new bookings as the airlines consolidate their flight networks. Refunds are available in some circumstances where the new flight schedule is unsuitable.

Neil Hansford, chairman at Strategic Aviation Solutions, said there would still be plenty of sale fares despite the lower number of flights.

"I don't think it's going to be a catalyst to raise fares," he said. "The propensity to put prices up to cater for the reduced capacity isn't really there."

Mr Hansford said the golden rule of travel still applied.

"If you can travel on one of the quiet days you'll still have a competitive fare."

Longer term, Mr Hansford predicts it will be difficult to lure Chinese tourists back to Australia even once the travel ban is lifted.

"The Chinese will be hard to motivate because they … fly in groups. Their independent travellers are almost non-existent," he said.

CAPA Centre for Aviation's Mr Harbison said the cuts to Jetstar flights to Japan were unsurprising.

"The Japanese are the most nervous tourists in the world, they're very fragile," he said.