Qantas and Virgin Australia have flown their last international flights for the foreseeable future after government funding for the handful of overseas routes that had continued during the pandemic came to a halt.
The Morrison government is reportedly reviewing whether it needs to fund further flights to get Australians home from abroad – even as some overseas airlines resume flying to Australia.
Qantas and Virgin had been flying limited routes home from London, Auckland, Los Angeles and Hong Kong.
The flights were designed to help Australians stranded overseas get home amid travel restrictions and coronavirus lockdowns. However, Virgin Australia’s final international flight was scheduled to return from Los Angeles on Tuesday, while Qantas’s last US flight landed on Monday.
Despite that, Singapore Airlines has ramped up its flights to Australia this week. Its new schedule includes flights to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane, and comes as Changi Airport begins to reopen to transit passengers.
Singapore Airlines regional vice-president south-west Pacific, Philip Goh, told Executive Traveller the increase in services to Australia – which will also help move freight – was a small but confident step in the right direction.
Also on Tuesday, Transport Department Secretary Simon Atkinson outlined the full devastation to the domestic and international travel industry wrought by the COVID-19 outbreak.
He told a Senate committee that initial predictions of a 40 per cent drop in air travel during the pandemic had fallen well short. The real figure is closer to 98 per cent.
As an example, on Easter Sunday 2019, Brisbane Airport had about 39,000 passengers – on Easter Sunday this year, just 31 people passed through its terminals.
With Australians barred from going overseas since late March, the emergency repatriation trips have been the country’s only international arrivals. And, despite subsidies to people, businesses and airlines, domestic air travel is still running at only about 3 per cent capacity.
“The only thing that will restore the aviation sector to a normal commercial basis is the reopening of the economy,” Mr Atkinson said.
He said the department had been working with health experts to lay out air travel policy to get passengers back on planes.
The aviation sector has received a $1.2 billion support package to help it through the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic.
Virgin Australia went into voluntary administration in April. However, Qantas and Jetstar said last week they would boost domestic flights to 40 per cent of pre-pandemic capacity by the end of July.
The airlines will focus on capital city routes, particularly Melbourne-Sydney and routes to and from Canberra, as well as intrastate flights for Western Australia, Queensland, NSW and South Australia.
“Subsidies … will taper off as routes become commercially viable,” Mr Atkinson said.
“Hopefully quickly as the Australian public realise they can travel in a COVID-safe way.”
The coronavirus lockdown had disrupted supply chains, driven up air freight prices and hampered access to essentials from overseas.
Mr Atkinson said 80 per cent of international air freight travelled in the belly of passenger planes before the pandemic.