Qantas has reopened bookings for flights to the United States and the United Kingdom, but questions remain over the return of travel to international coronavirus hotspots.
Would-be travellers can now book trips to the UK and the US on Qantas planes departing Australia from July 1, but whether the flights will actually go ahead is uncertain.
Qantas’ move comes as concern grows over a ‘mutant strain’ of the coronavirus in the UK, with some calling for Australia to immediately shut the door on returning UK travellers.
A staggering one in 50 people in the UK are estimated to have had COVID-19 between December 27 and January 2, with the UK posting a record 60,916 new cases on Tuesday.
Emergency vaccination programs are already under way in the UK and the US, with Australia not set to commence its COVID vaccine rollout until early March.
Qantas’ schedule for resuming flights to the UK and the US is “optimistic”, said Bond University executive dean of health sciences and medicine Nick Zwar.
The plan’s success hinges on a “best-case scenario” in which “the vaccine programs get rolled out efficiently and effectively in the US, the UK, and in Australia, and that most of the population is vaccinated by April/May”, Professor Zwar told The New Daily.
With Australia’s vaccination program not set to start until early March “it’s hard to see how that’s possible”, he said.
Numerous questions – from the efficacy of vaccines to airport and airline safety protocols and quarantine requirements for international travellers – are yet to be answered.
“Does getting vaccinated mean you couldn’t pass on the infection? We don’t know that for sure yet,” Professor Zwar said.
“And we don’t know, of course, how well it will work on a mass basis. We know there are some very encouraging results from the trials, but when you do things across the whole population, you might find some sub-groups it is less effective for.
“There’s a whole lot of complexities around country requirements in terms of do people still have to be tested before they get on the flight? Do they have to get tested on arrival?
“Will they still be expected to self-quarantine? Will there be expectations of, like they’re doing in Hong Kong, people having tracking devices that they wear for 14 days? And also, what do the airlines need to do in terms of cleaning protocols, mask wearing during the flight, and all of those processes?
There’s a lot of things that would need to be in place for it to be a smooth journey for the travelling public.”
A Qantas spokesperson said the firm is continuing to “review and update our international schedule in response to the developing COVID-19 situation”.
“Recently we have aligned the selling of our international services to reflect our expectation that international travel will begin to restart from July 2021,” the spokesperson said.
Qantas boss Alan Joyce has been at the forefront of the campaign to reopen Australia’s domestic and international borders.
In December, Mr Joyce said domestic flying in Australia could resume to about 80 per cent of pre-COVID levels by early 2021.
The aviation industry has been among the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, with ongoing concerns over the future viability of some airlines and routes.
According to estimates by the International Air Transport Association (IATA), global passenger traffic will not return to pre-COVID-19 levels until 2024, with short-haul travel expected to recover faster than long-haul travel.
Travellers must ‘be prepared’ for cancelled flights
RMIT University aviation expert Chrystal Zhang said Qantas’s decision to open bookings for UK and US flight was a “commercial decision, not a political decision”.
“I think there is every reason for airlines to make this kind of commercial decision,” Dr Zhang told the ABC on Wednesday.
However, both airlines and travellers face “uncertainty” over whether or not the flights will actually go ahead.
Would-be travellers “have to be prepared” for the possibility that their flight may be cancelled, and should be willing to accept a refund or delay their travel, Dr Zhang warned.
“There is definitely some uncertainty there … the advice for the traveller is that perhaps they really need to look carefully into the terms and conditions of the flight and look for the refund policies and consider carefully and diligently their travel plan.”
According to Qantas’s policy for international flights, if a flight is cancelled passengers are rebooked “on the next available flight to their booked destination (if possible), at no additional cost”.
“Alternatively, they can choose a flight credit or a refund. They won’t be charged any change or cancellation fees.”
Customers complain about slow refunds
Qantas customers have complained of lengthy waits for refunds for flights cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The airline this week took to Twitter to warn customers of scammers pretending to be offering Qantas flight refunds.
Update on scams: If you receive a call appearing to be from the Qantas Refund Team asking for your credit card details, please be aware this is a scam. Do not provide any personal or financial details & do not respond to these calls.
— Qantas (@Qantas) January 5, 2021
Some customers aired their grievances over Qantas’ refund processes.
“Given that I’m still waiting for my @Qantas refund 6 months later, I wouldn’t be rushing to book flights with them (ever again),” one Twitter user wrote.
“After waiting 4 months after the cancelled flight date I initiated a credit card charge back to get my money. Should have done it earlier. Qantas was less than helpful and played “point the finger” with the travel agent,” said another.
A Qantas spokesperson told The New Daily the firm has “assisted more than 2.5 million customers with impacted flights” since the onset of the pandemic.
“Many customers have thanked us for providing a flexible travel credit which they now have until the end of 2022 to use,” the spokesperson said.
“Of our customers eligible for a refund, we’ve seen the majority opting to hold on to their credit instead. If they change their mind, they’ll still be able to request a refund.
“If a customer has made their booking via a travel agent or third party, and would like their fare returned, then that must be processed via the travel agent.”