Qantas is planning to restart travel to COVID-ravaged nations such as the US, Britain and Canada as soon as December, with hopes that Australia’s fast-accelerating vaccine rollout may give more options for international flights.
But questions remain over whether travellers will still need to quarantine on return.
Qantas is also concerned about the “conservative border policies” of Western Australia and is considering dropping Perth as a transit destination for European flights.
“Key markets like the UK, North America and parts of Asia have high and increasing levels of vaccination,” Qantas said in its latest financial results update on Thursday.
“This makes them highly likely to be classed as low-risk countries for vaccinated travellers to visit and return from under reduced quarantine requirements.”
Previously, only highly-vaccinated and low-case countries, such as Singapore and South Korea, were singled out for travel in the near future. But the national carrier is preparing to expand its destination list even further.
Qantas posted a huge pre-tax loss of $2.3 billion for the 2021 financial year, chief executive Alan Joyce announced on Thursday. He said the airline had lost $16 billion in revenue so far throughout the pandemic – with that figure expected to hit $20 billion by year’s end.
“These are big numbers. And they sum up what continues to be very tough time for this industry, this company, and our people,” Mr Joyce said.
“International borders were essentially closed for the whole year, and there were only about 30 days when we didn’t face some level of domestic travel restrictions.”
Previously, the federal government had plans to reopen international borders by October 2021, but had to abandon those due to the delayed vaccine rollout and uncertainty over the Delta strain. The federal budget, delivered in May, also assumed that inbound and outbound overseas travel will “remain low through to mid-2022”.
However, the federal government’s latest four-stage reopening plan – underpinned by the Doherty Institute modelling – has given Qantas optimism. Under it, internal COVID restrictions such as border closures could be substantially wound back after 70 per cent adult vaccination rates, and the international border could reopen at 80 per cent.
At that higher benchmark, options to replace the mandatory two-week hotel quarantine for returning travellers could be explored, including looking at shorter stays or home isolation. The federal government has offered no firm details about what new quarantine arrangements could look like.
Those plans have Qantas excited, with the airline expecting to begin flying not only to nations such as Japan and Singapore, which have handled the virus relatively well, but also to the US, Britain and Canada.
Qantas said it expected the NZ bubble, currently closed, to resume from December.
Tourism Minister Dan Tehan told Parliament on Wednesday that once the 80 per cent vaccine target was hit, “outbound international restrictions will be lifted and travel bubbles will be expanded”.
“Not only will we have the travel bubble with New Zealand but the Pacific Islands, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, the US, the UK are all
possibilities that we’ll be able to extend our travel bubbles to,” he said.
Previously, those northern hemisphere nations were not high on the list of looming possible travel destinations, due to their high virus levels. However, Qantas said it was looking to “destinations with high vaccination rates” as its “initial focus”.
It called the US, Britain, Canada, Japan, Singapore and Fiji “COVID-safe” destinations, borrowing a line used frequently by Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
However, Qantas has signalled it doesn’t expect large-scale international travel to return until mid- or late-2022.
From December, it will use smaller Boeing 787s and Airbus A330s for European and American travel. The much larger A380s won’t return to service until July 2022 for flights to Los Angeles, and November 2022 for London services.
“The A380s work well on these long-haul routes when there’s sufficient demand, and the high vaccination rates in both markets would underpin this,” Qantas said.
“Flights to Hong Kong will restart in February and the rest of the Qantas and Jetstar international network is planned to open up from April 2022, with capacity increasing gradually.”
The airline noted this would be “pending decisions by the Australian government and entry policies of other countries”. A sticking point could be certification of different vaccines across global borders; international ‘vaccine passports’ are expected to become a key part of travel, but some nations may not approve every vaccine for entry.
For instance, the AstraZeneca vaccine is not currently approved for entry to the US.
Qantas also stressed this would be “dependent on government decisions in coming months, including future quarantine requirements”.
Qantas also weighed in on increasingly contentious COVID-zero stance of WA premier Mark McGowan, saying his “conservative border policies” could mean the airline no longer used Perth as a hub for European flights.
“The airline is investigating using Darwin as a transit point, which has been Qantas’ main entry for repatriation flights, as an alternative (or in addition) to its existing Perth hub given in Western Australia,” it said.
Considering increasing tensions between the federal government demanding an end to lockdowns and border closures, and governments in WA and Queensland asserting their rights to stick with them, there is the possibility that Australians in some states will have more freedom to travel internationally than domestically in coming months.
WA and Queensland have not ruled out maintaining border restrictions to NSW, unless current high case numbers fall significantly.