Qantas has now circled October 31, 2021 for the resumption of most international flights, based on the government's forecast that all Australians will be vaccinated against COVID-19 by October.
Although there's scope for New Zealand and other 'travel bubble' destinations to open up from mid-year after frontline quarantine workers are vaccinated and Australia reaches claimed 'herd immunity' levels, Qantas expects full vaccination will be the key to unlocking the country's long-closed international borders.
"We're in close consultation with government, and if things change, so will our dates," remarked Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce in announcing the revised timeline this morning.
"But with the vaccine rollout already underway, we're on the right track."
A slow start
But Qantas' international relaunch schedule will be very different from the familiar roster of pre-COVID days.
Overall, Joyce expects international travellers won't flock back to the skies, despite a degree of pent-up demand and the need to reestablish many business relationships.
"We're assuming there is a build-up that will take a few years... because of reluctance to travel, people being a bit more cautious," Joyce predicts, resulting in international demand reaching only 40% of pre-COVID levels by mid-2022.
As a result, the rebooted international network will be shaped to suit, "with frequencies and aircraft type deployed on each route in line with the projected recovery of international flying."
For example, Sydney-Hong Kong now shows only one daily flight, back from the previous double-daily service; while the premature retirement of the Boeing 747 will see the 364-seat jumbo downgraded to the 297-seat Airbus A330.
Thumbing through Qantas' pared-back schedule also shows only four flights per week between Melbourne and Tokyo, and six between Melbourne and Los Angeles.
Most Asian destinations will be served by the Airbus A330, with the Boeing 787 becoming the new flagship as it replaces the still-grounded Airbus A380s.
Some Dreamliners remain undelivered
But even then, Joyce says the Dreamliner fleet will be pegged at the 11 jets which Qantas already owns, and not the full 14-strong complement.
In the short term, Qantas won't "take delivery of the next three 787s which Boeing have built, we don’t see a need for them today", Joyce tells Executive Traveller.
"There's not enough demand for them – but when we see demand coming through, we’ll activate them."
Those aircraft have been earmarked for New York, Santiago and Osaka, which is why those three Qantas destinations will remain suspended for now.
And with the Airbus A380s out of action, the Boeing 787s will take over on routes such as Sydney-Singapore-London as well as to Los Angeles and Dallas/Forth Worth.
A380s stood down and written down
"We don't think demand will get back to 2019 levels until 2024," Joyce explains, "and that’s why were assuming the A380s are going to be parked in the desert for those three years... and if we're wrong and demand is a lot better than we expect, we can reactive the A380s within 3-6 months."
Qantas still expects those A380s to take wing, and the superjumbos could become super cash machines after the airline slashed their book value in mid-2020.
"We took a substantial write-down on the A380s in June 2020, our current written-down value is $490 million," Qantas CFO Vanessa Hudson reveals to Executive Traveller.
"When that aircraft comes back, half the fleet have been reconfigured with the brand new product. Customers love the A380, and it also serves routes that have slot constraints, so flying an aircraft with a bigger capacity delivers significant cash for the group."