2022 is expected to see the return of international travel for most Australians – certainly those who've been vaccinated – and Qantas will share its own roadmap next week, when the airline presents its report for the 2021 financial year.
It's a year which has had its share of highs and lows: the former in boom times for domestic travel as lockdowns ended and travel restrictions eased, the later during those lockdowns and persistent state border closures, with Covid's Delta variant taking hold in recent months.
However, across those past 12 months, Qantas' international network has been neutered – along with the annual flow of around $8 billion dollars in revenue which those overseas flights account for – and the airline could once again be tipped into a multi-billion dollar loss.
But with the promise of better times ahead, Qantas is gearing up for those flights to resume across 2022, as Australia's national vaccination rate soars past the 80% mark – a milestone set to be reached by December 2021 – although that restart is likely to take a piecemeal approach based on counties and regions, rather than the entire pre-Covid timetable springing back into place.
Putting the pieces in place
"What we'll do next week is talk about what our expectation are on our best estimates of how international (travel) could open up," Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce confirmed during a media briefing this week, following the airline's decision to require mandatory Covid vaccination for all employees as well as most international passengers.
"We are technically getting ready with the IATA Travel Pass, so that can be part of the thinking process and part of the checkin process to ensure we are compliant with countries that have that as a requirement, and also our own requirements for people to travel."
"That will be ready by the end of the year, we're working with the government on getting that ready, and I'll talk in more detail about what we think those likely dates are next week."
The airline has twice been forced to delay its return to international skies, setting and then scrapping dates of July 1 2021 and then October 31 2021, each time tracking the moving target of the Government's own forecasts to align "with the expected timeframe for Australia's Covid-19 vaccine rollout to be effectively complete."
Qantas the reset its sights on a tentative December 2021 restart for flights to most international destinations, although in August, Joyce told Executive Traveller this too would be revisited as the national vaccination rollout progresses and "as we get more certainty" over when Australia would hit the 80% milestone which would trigger the government's Phase C and allow international travel.
"It's clear when we get to 80% of the eligible adult population being vaccinated that some international (travel) will start," Joyce said, "and that is a possibility still, depending on how successful the rollout is... some forecasts say that could be achieved by the end of the year."
"So our original date, by December, still could be feasible and we're still keeping that capability there just in case... we can't say today because we don’t know when that 80% will be achieved, so we're keeping that date today."
Upbeat on Asia-Pacific bubbles
Speaking at a Tourism Australia webinar last week, Federal Tourism Minister Dan Tehan was upbeat on "that strong ray of sunshine that we can begin to see once we hit that 80% (vaccination) rate by Christmas, and once we do, we will be able to turn the corner."
Tehan said that discussions are continuing with Singapore and Australia's Pacific Island neighbours on establishing quarantine-free travel bubbles, and cited the New Zealand bubble as successful proof-of-concept.
"Obviously, New Zealand is the one we've put in place, and it was working successfully, even if only for a brief period of time. I think (the) Pacific Islands (and) Singapore are very keen for us to do a bubble, and work's being done in that regard.
"Japan and South Korea are very keen as well to see a bubble be put in place," he added.
"The UK obviously have got a 'traffic light' system in place which is working well for them, and so I think we'll be able to look to see what we can do with them. The US, they're very keen also to engage with us."
However, unlike the trans-Tasman bubble which required only a little extra paperwork by Aussies and Kiwis darting across the ditch, the bubbles of 2022 are expected to be restricted to fully-vaccinated travellers, who in most cases will also need to undergo a pre-departure and/or on-arrival Covid-19 test.