Qantas caught the world's attention in 2017 with the debut of non-stop Boeing 787 flights between Australia and the UK, using Perth as a transit hub Down Under.
But fast-forward to today, and Western Australia's tough stance on domestic borders could see Qantas shift those flights to the Northern Territory instead – or route fewer flights westward.
Darwin has been home to many of the airline's repatriation flights throughout COVID.
In March 2020, it also served as a short-term springboard to the UK, with Airbus A380 services running from Sydney to Darwin and then onwards to London, and vice versa.
"We've got some good operational capability flying from Darwin to London, to Paris, to Frankfurt, to Istanbul, so we know that operation really well," Qantas CEO Alan Joyce hinted today.
Darwin the new London hub?
"Qantas’ ability to fly non-stop between Australia and London is expected to be in even higher demand post-COVID," Qantas observes.
"The airline is investigating using Darwin as a transit point, which has been Qantas’ main entry for repatriation flights, as an alternative (or in addition) to its existing Perth hub given conservative border policies in Western Australia."
If all Australia-UK flights moved to Darwin, this could see Qantas' transit hub at Perth Airport scrapped – including its purpose-built Transit Lounge – in favour of flying through the Top End.
"Discussions on this option are continuing," Qantas adds.
"I think it would be a terrible shame, if when we got to Christmas, from NSW you could visit your relatives in London, but can't visit your relatives in Perth," Joyce says.
"Hopefully ... we can get some consistency (on borders) ... and for us not to be a 'hermit nation' going forward."
Executive Traveller understands that Qantas still hopes to use Perth Airport for its London flying, particularly given its investment in lounge and transit infrastructure at Perth Airport.
However, WA's tight borders will make this a challenging prospect.
Qantas' call on Darwin adds pressure on WA Premier Mark McGowan to ease travel restrictions, by highlighting the loss WA's largest city will face – not only in flights, but also domestic and international tourism.
When Qantas' London-Perth flights were in full swing, many visitors from the UK took the opportunity to spend time in WA, before continuing the east coast.
Given the ability to fly non-stop from London, it also added to Perth's appeal as a destination in its own right, which would be reduced if it became accessible only via transit elsewhere.
Upgrades at Darwin Airport under review
If Qantas were to move its non-stop Australia-UK flights to a Darwin Airport hub, the airline would be looking to improve its lounge facilities in the NT capital.
Currently, the airline operates a large Qantas Club in the terminal, serving domestic and international flights.
Darwin doesn't feature a separate business class lounge, dedicated international Qantas lounge, or 'Transit Lounge' as in Perth, however.
"We have teams looking at what we do on lounges, as an example, if (Darwin) was a long-term decision, which potentially it could be," Joyce continues.
"In the short term, we'd operate there with what we have, to give people an option of staying in Australia to get to the UK directly, which we think there will be significant demand for."
"Given the conservative nature of Western Australia, we hope for the best, but we have to plan for the worst, so if the only option to operate London flights is through Darwin, we think we've very capable of doing that."
Western Australia's tough stance on domestic borders has repeatedly seen the state fast to close to interstate travellers, but relatively slow to re-open and remove self-isolation requirements.
Perth Airport another pain point
Although not specifically cited by Qantas as part of its review into a Darwin detour, relations between the Flying Kangaroo and Perth Airport have often encountered turbulence.
While the two companies reached an agreement in time for the original Perth-London launch, the same hasn't been true of Qantas' other Perth plans.
Back in 2018, the airline had hoped to launch direct Perth-Johannesburg flights.
Qantas wanted these to operate from the same 'transit' precinct as its London departures, making for easy connections to and from domestic flights.
Perth Airport, on the other hand, insisted the Jo'burg jaunt departed from the other side of the airport, requiring planes to be towed, passengers to be bussed, and transit times extended.
After two months of negotiations, Qantas eventually pulled the pin on Perth-Johannesburg.
"I’ve never heard of an airport stopping an airline doing a new route, so they’re doing unbelievable things that they need to get resolved," Joyce said at the time.
Perth-Paris plans paused
In 2019, the airline's intended Perth-Paris flights also stalled before launch.
Perth Airport had again refused to permit those planes to depart from the same transit precinct as Perth-London.
The two companies had also been in a long-running dispute over the charges levied to airlines for the use of Perth Airport.
"Until that’s resolved, we’re not going to reward bad behaviour. We don’t think that’s the right thing to do with our business, so unfortunately, we’re not expanding (out of Perth) at the moment," Joyce said in 2019.
Those financial disputes were resolved in 2020 – by which time, international borders were closing due to COVID-19.
Whether Perth-Paris ultimately takes off, or Darwin nabs those direct flights to the City of Lights, will be interesting to watch.