Qantas bullish on Australia reopening by end of year if vaccination rollout stays on track
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Editor’s note: This story was updated on Sept. 8, 2021 with new information
As Australia pushes towards its target of an 80% vaccination rate, Qantas, the country’s flagship carrier, is banking on the country reopening its borders to international travel sooner than expected, the airline said recently.
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The Qantas Group eyed December this year for the resumption of international flights from Australia to “COVID-19-safe destinations,” including North America, the United Kingdom and Asia, with flights to the United States “likely” starting in mid-December, the airline said on Aug. 26. It’s an ambitious goal to say the least, one solely dependent on Australia’s progress towards meeting its vaccination threshold by the end of the year, which the government said would jumpstart the gradual reopening of the country.
“The prospect of flying overseas might feel a long way off, especially with New South Wales and Victoria in lockdown, but the current pace of the vaccine rollout means we should have a lot more freedom in a few months’ time,” Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce said in a statement. “It’s obviously up to government exactly how and when our international borders reopen, but with Australia on track to meet the 80% trigger agreed by National Cabinet by the end of the year, we need to plan ahead for what is a complex restart process.”
Australia’s flag carrier previously said they didn’t expect to be transporting international passengers via long-haul flights until October 2021 at the earliest. The airline announced more than $1 billion in annual losses for fiscal year 2021 on Aug. 26, citing a “diabolical” year of pandemic-related travel restrictions. Qantas did not respond to a request for comment.
In July 2021, the Australian National Cabinet outlined a four-phased plan toward reopening the country to international visitors, hinging on their ability to fully vaccinate at least 80% of their eligible adult population. Just over 36% of Australians over the age of 16 are fully vaccinated as of Sept. 1, per data from the Australian Immunization Register. In March 2021, Australian Finance Minister Simon Birmingham said the country’s borders were unlikely to reopen until the middle or end of 2022.
Read more: Australia won’t reopen to international travel until 2022
Australia has maintained one of the strictest lockdown measures since first closing borders in March 2020, initially banning both citizens from leaving and returning home. The government has since granted specific exemptions, including to Australian citizens and permanent residents, but an ongoing travel ban remains in place for all non-residents and non-Australian citizens entering Australia, excluding neighboring New Zealand.
In April 2021, Australia and New Zealand began quarantine-free journeys between the two countries, following individual Australian states who had begun allowing quarantine-free travel from New Zealand since October 2020. Quarantine-free travel from New Zealand was also suspended in July, per the New Zealand government. New Zealand is expected to reopen to vaccinated visitors in early 2022.
“There’s a lot of work that needs to happen, including training for our people and carefully bringing aircraft back into service. We’re also working to integrate the IATA travel pass into our systems to help our customers prove their vaccine status and cross borders,” Joyce said. “We can adjust our plans if the circumstances change, which we’ve already had to do several times during this pandemic. Some people might say we’re being too optimistic, but based on the pace of the vaccine rollout, this is within reach and we want to make sure we’re ready.”
Qantas recently extended its Fly Flexible policy to offer customers free fare changes for international flights booked by Feb. 28, 2022, for travel through the end of 2022, although fare differences still apply. They also extended credit vouchers for bookings made on or before Sept. 30, 2021, for travel through Dec. 31, 2023.
Although meeting its vaccination goal is likely to result in the opening of international borders, the Australian government anticipates continuing to restrict travel for incoming arrivals, including quarantine-free travel for vaccinated visitors, mandatory quarantine for high-risk inbound travelers and pre-flight and arrival COVID-19 testing requirements for unvaccinated travelers. Vaccinated Australians are also expected to be able to travel freely.
“As Australia moves through the four phases, restrictions on international and domestic travel and other measures will be safely and gradually eased,” a spokesperson from the Australian Department of Home Affairs said via email, who noted that these measures may include “increasing inbound passenger caps for returning travellers, allowing capped entry of student and economic visa holders, lifting all restrictions on outbound travel for vaccinated Australians and fully opening international borders,” among others.
“We’ve now passed 12 million first doses. What that means is that to get to the 70% mark of 14.5 million, there are 2.4 million people we need to come forward. To get to the 80% first dose mark of 16.5 million, there are now 4.4 million people we need to come forward. These are not huge numbers,” Australian Minister for Health and Aged Care, Greg Hunt, said during a press conference on Aug. 31. “These are numbers, when you look at what we’re doing — 1.9 million a week — are easily within reach. But, we do need everybody to keep coming forward.”
Featured image of the entrance to the Qantas domestic terminal at Kingsford Smith Airport on Aug. 26, 2021, in Sydney, Australia by James D. Morgan/Getty Images
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