International airlines have said they are not selling tickets to Australians locked out of the country because they do not yet have clarity on what testing, quarantine and vaccination rules will apply.
Even when the international border reopens, flights in and out of Australia will operate at a “fraction of pre-pandemic levels”, the airlines have warned.
The Morrison government has flagged that it may open the international border and lift the ban on Australians leaving the country before Christmas, and Qantas has said it is planning to reboot parts of its international network from December 18.
However, foreign airlines currently flying to Australia have said they are delaying opening up bookings to more passengers until the government explains who will be allowed in and out of the country, and what the rules around vaccination will be.
Barry Abrams, executive director of the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia (BARA), told the Sydney Morning Herald that international airlines currently had a large number of empty seats they don’t yet have the confidence to sell “because they don’t know what the arrangements are”.
“They’re holding back, waiting for clarity from government on those key issues to be resolved,” Abrams said.
Under the National Plan agreed to by the federal, state and territory governments, Australia will start opening its international border to “safe countries” with reduced requirements for fully vaccinated travellers once 80% of the adult population is double vaccinated.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said this would happen before the end of the year, while Tourism Minister Dan Tehan said last week that he hoped the border would be open by Christmas “at the latest”.
Australia is expected to reach 80% vaccination rates by October 23.
Airlines flying into Australia, including Emirates, Singapore, Etihad, United, Qatar and Cathay Pacific, are carrying as few as 10 people on inbound flights — that are being funded by freight volumes — in order to stay below arrival limits to match capacity in hotel quarantine.
Currently, 300 people are able to travel into the country per day nationwide.
The Board of Airline Representatives of Australia, which represents airlines including Emirates, Etihad and United, said on Wednesday that flights in and out of Australia will operate at a “fraction of pre-pandemic levels” due to home quarantine requirements.
It said the federal government’s requirement for a seven-day home quarantine for vaccinated travellers entering the country was unlikely to facilitate the return of a commercially viable international aviation industry in the short term.
Because a large number of pre-pandemic travellers were tourists and foreigners who will not have an Australian home in which to isolate, they will be unlikely to choose the country as a holiday destination in early 2022 if they have to forfeit a week and pay for quarantine accommodation, Bara said.
Singapore Airlines cancelled a raft of international flights between October and December earlier this month, citing the continued uncertainty around when international passenger caps would be lifted.
A spokesperson for the airline said on Tuesday the carrier continued to “seek clarity on how the Australian government plans to treat inbound arrivals to Australia for those vaccinated overseas”.
However, Qantas remains confident its plans to ramp up operations will continue as planned.
The national airline is selling tickets on flights to the UK, the US, Japan, Singapore, Canada and Fiji from December 18 and says it has consulted the government about its plans.
Alan Joyce, chief executive of Qantas told Melbourne radio station 3AW on Tuesday there was a “real prospect” the airline would restart international flights from mid-December as planned.
Joyce said demand would depend on quarantine and testing arrangements, which ideally would move beyond home quarantine to a rapid “test and release” system used in many countries, where an inbound traveller only needs to isolate until they return a negative COVID-19 test.
“You don’t have to go into a form of quarantine but worst case, it’s some form of home quarantine,” Joyce said.