Qantas’ Perth flights up in the air as WA extends border lockdown
WA’s move to keep its border shut well into 2022 has a knock-on effect for Qantas flights from Perth to London and Rome.
Qantas may be forced to delay the return of its non-stop Perth-London flights after Western Australian's snap decision to keep its borders shut for what amounts to an indefinite period.
WA Premier Mark McGowan announced overnight that the state would abandon its already-delayed plans to reopen to interstate and overseas travel on February 5, suggesting the hard border may not come down until 80-90% of WA's population has received a third Covid-19 vaccination, in the form of a booster on top of their two initial jabs.
McGowan didn't reveal any timeline for the new target; the state's third dose rate for people 18 and over currently stands at around 25%.
Qantas has been gearing up to rebuild its schedule of transcontinental flights linking the east coast capitals with Perth; those flights have been running on a skeleton schedule since Australia's nation-wide shutdown in the face of the pandemic from March 2020.
Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce slammed the sudden turnaround, describing the situation as "deeply concerning. February 5 was supposedly ‘locked in’ to give certainty. Tens of thousands of people booked travel on that basis and we brought a lot of our people back to work on that basis."
"Removing that certainty with no new timeline for when the border will reopen is a real blow not just for travel but for Australia as a whole."
The airline says between Qantas and Jetstar "there were more than 20,000 people booked to arrive into Perth in the first week that WA borders were scheduled to open."
Qantas will also draw down its planned domestic capacity – the number of seats it flies – "by approximately 10% from 5 February to 31 March 2022 as a placeholder", the airline said, noting this hit reflected "the long sector length of transcontinental flights."
Joyce said that the other Australian states and territories "have forged ahead despite the challenges that Omicron presented because they know this virus isn’t going away."
"The rest of the country is focused on getting through this but WA is still playing for time, despite people doing the right thing and getting vaccinated. The question is what it will take for them to open. It’s very hard, as a business, to deal with this level of uncertainty."
Perth-London, Perth-Rome flights face uncertain future
Qantas' flagship Perth-London Boeing 787 flight, which has been running via Darwin instead of Perth since November 2021, was due to return to the WA capital on March 27.
However, the airline this afternoon issued a statement advising that "timing to reinstate Qantas' Perth-London route, which is currently operating via Darwin and was due to return to Western Australia in late March 2022, is under review."
"A decision is expected in the next few weeks given the lead times involved," the airline stated, adding it is "in discussions with the Northern Territory Government about extending the operation of the alternative Darwin-London route."
Qantas’ new seasonal flights from Sydney to Rome via Perth, due to begin on 22 June, may now need to run via Darwin or Singapore, although the airline says the service "remains due to start in late June 2022, pending a decision on border settings."
Qantas has also been in ongoing discussions with Perth Airport over its long-held ambitions to run direct Perth-Johannesburg flights to fill the gap left by South African Airways.
"We’re very keen on South Africa (and) we think it's a good growth opportunity for us," Qantas CEO Alan Joyce told the Reuters Next online forum in early 2021.
"And if we can resolve our dispute with Perth Airport, we will start the Perth-Jo'burg service, which is on our list of new routes, and we think that will be very successful," he added.
SQ says VTL flights going ahead
Emirates and Singapore Airlines have also been caught flat-footed by WA's extended border closure, although Singapore Airlines affirmed its "Vaccinated Travel Lane (VTL) flights from Perth to Singapore are unaffected, and will start as planned on 5 February 2022."
However, a spokesperson for the airline said it "will not begin 'For Eligible Passengers Only' (FEPO) flights from Singapore to Perth from 5 February 2022 as previously announced, after the Western Australian authorities delayed the reopening of the state’s borders."
The spokesperson said the airline "remains guided by Western Australia’s regulations, and we will adjust our flights accordingly. We would like to apologise to our customers for any inconvenience caused."
Emirates had also planned to resume flying between Dubai and Perth on February 5, upgrading the route to an Airbus A380 from June 17 to meet expected demand.
An Emirates spokesperson told Executive Traveller the Gulf carrier "has adjusted its flights schedules for Perth and will continue to operate EK420/421 three times weekly until 1 March, for those who are permitted to travel in line with government regulations.
"From 2 March, its services to Perth are currently planned to increase to five times per week. We are working with the relevant authorities to minimise disruption. Affected customers should contact our contact centre or their travel agents for rebooking options."