Australian airlines eye returning to international game

Australian aviation experts believed the industry is on track to re-enter the international market, with the first step being to start quarantine-free travel with New Zealand.

However, the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic makes international border reopening a risky issue.

STARTING TO FLY

The aviation industry was one of the worst-hit sectors in the pandemic due to travel restrictions. Australia’s biggest airline Qantas swung to an underlying loss before tax of 1.03 billion Australian dollars (0.8 billion U.S. dollars) for the six months ending Dec. 31, 2020.

An analysis by the International Air Transport Association (IATA) in February showed that the airline industry is expected to remain cash negative throughout 2021.

Therefore, the travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand, which was hailed by IATA as a model for other governments, was taken by the Australian aviation industry as a great opportunity to start to return to the international game.

Qantas announced it would relaunch flights to 22 international destinations from October 31 this year while Virgin Australia said short-haul overseas routes to Bali and the Pacific would be among its first international routes to resume, followed by long-haul flights to Japan and the United States.

OCCUPYING TIME SLOTS

Australia’s international travel ban was extended for another three months from March to June. Facing the nation’s delay in COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the aviation companies’ plan to boost international flights seemed to be a bit bold.

Aviation lecturer and researcher Mirjam Wiedemann from the University of South Australia, told Xinhua recently that the early decision by Qantas regarding overseas travel was probably to secure its position in the international market during the valuable Australian summer market.

“They need to make sure they are securing the (time) slots at airports around the world now where air travel starts to come back after the pandemic globally,” Wiedemann said.

“Our super important summer market is mainly in January and February. So even if they are not flying in November, but then may end up flying in January, they are still getting half of this gain.”

The slots are vital for airlines as they give them the right to take off and land at a specific airport at a designated time. An airline wishing to operate a new service needs to apply for a slot with the airports.

STUMBLING AHEAD

From Saturday, the state of Western Australia (WA) entered a three-day snap lockdown after a man from the state of Victoria tested positive in Melbourne after completing 14 days of quarantine at a WA hotel.

The New Zealand government soon paused travel with WA following the state’s decision. A flight due to leave Perth for the country late on Friday night was also canceled.

Last year, the one-way travel bubble from New Zealand to Australia was also temporarily suspended due to an outbreak in Auckland.

“If we do not open our borders soon, we start losing out not only in regard to passenger air connectivity but also in terms of international trade,” Wiedemann said.

There were 32,900 estimated overseas arrivals to Australia in March this year, a 96.4-percent decrease compared to the corresponding month of the previous year. All overseas departures from Australia in the same month also witnessed a 96.2-percent decrease.

“It really depends on the vaccinations,” said Wiedemann, with regard to the sector’s recovery prospect.

Volodymyr Bilotkach, associate professor from the Singapore Institute of Technology, said, “The IATA’s February forecast of global travel volumes being back to 80 percent of 2019 levels by the last quarter of the year now principally rests on the speed of vaccination programs around the globe, and what happens with new COVID-19 variants.”

“Crucial to international travel returning to normal will be ‘vaccine passports’, some form of which will likely be needed for most international travel for at least the next five years,” he said.