International airlines will be forced to re-evaluate flying to Australia for at least the next six months, following today's decision by the federal government to halve the number of overseas passengers allowed into the country.
Prime Minster Scott Morrison said today that international arrivals to Australia will be limited to just over 3,000 passengers per week – down from a current cap of 6,000 – until early 2022, although home quarantine would be trialled for vaccinated travellers later this year.
While Morrison said the measure was a necessary response to containing the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant, it could see several foreign airlines cease flying to Australia entirely until those caps are lifted sometime in 2022.
The Board of Airline Representatives of Australia, which represents 33 major international carriers who in normal times operate 90% of all international passenger flights to the country, warned that some airlines could have no choice but to pull the plug.
Under the previous 6,000 passengers per week cap, several of the world's largest airlines – among them Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Qatar Airways – could typically carry around 35 travellers (around 10% of their total capacity) on each flight to Australia.
"Despite all the effort they've put in, it gets to a point where the only rational response is to suspend operations to Australia, perhaps for a very long period of time," BARA executive director Barry Abrams said in a media statement.
"There'll be a reduction in the level of connectivity available to Australians overseas to get home."
The government plans to boost the number of underwritten flights which operate as charter services – the bulk of which have been flown by Qantas – and arrive at Darwin's dedicated Howard Springs quarantine facility, which is now said to have ample spare capacity.
"There will be a decrease in the commercial arrivals but an increase in what are called the facilitated arrivals to Howard Springs in the Northern Territory," noted Meanwhile, Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt
"We know that some of those flights have in fact been under-subscribed in recent weeks so there is that capacity to bring additional Australians home via Howard Springs."
However, Morrison has acknowledged that the additional repatriation flights "obviously can't fully ameliorate the impact of the reduction of 50%, particularly out of Sydney."
Airlines study impact of 50% cut to arrivals
A spokesperson for Singapore Airlines told Executive Traveller that the airline "will continue to work closely with the Australian authorities to determine what, if any impact, the reduction in caps has on our operations to Australia."
"Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic we have remained steadfast in our commitment to ensure Australia remains connected to the world via our Singapore hub."
"We remain committed to the Australian market and will remain nimble and flexible in the deployment of capacity to ensure it meets demand and is commercially sustainable."
For carriers like Singapore Airlines, flights to Australia are these days more about cargo than passengers.
"By carrying cargo at least there's some revenue we can earn, even though there are almost no passengers travelling," Louis Arul, Singapore Airlines' regional vice president South West Pacific, told Executive Traveller last month.
Under a new four-stage plan for Australia's recovery from the pandemic, which Morrison described as "the pathway out of COVID-19", Phase 2 – which isn't expected to begin until 2022 – will see limits on inbound unvaccinated passengers return to their previous levels, although there would be "larger caps for vaccinated returning travellers."
"New reduced quarantine arrangements for vaccinated residents" would be introduced, such as home isolation, which will be trialled in Adelaide later this year.