Everyone expected that the shape of international travel would be different once overseas flights resumed, but few people – if indeed anybody – could have predicted this.
When Qantas restarts its Sydney-London and Melbourne-London flights in the coming months, the airline says they'll both operate via Darwin, with the NT capital filling in for Singapore – in the case of the Sydney QF1/QF2 service – and Perth (Melbourne's QF9/QF10).
The airline this week reached agreement with the Northern Territory Government and Darwin Airport to temporarily reroute its flights from Melbourne and Sydney through Darwin.
"The Darwin hub arrangement will be in place in time for borders reopening from 14 November 2021 until at least April 2022 when London flights are scheduled to operate via Perth again," the airline confirmed in a statement issued this evening.
"While this is a temporary change to the route, Qantas will watch how it performs and is open-minded about what it could lead to down the track."
The NT Government describes the arrangement as creating "a travel bubble at the Darwin International Airport terminal for passengers travelling from Melbourne and Sydney to London via Darwin."
Darwin-based passengers will also be able to book the direct QF1 or QF9 flights to London.
Sydney-Darwin-London from 14 November
Sydney-Darwin-London flights will begin on 14 November, with the Melbourne-Darwin-London route currently scheduled to begin on 18 December 2021 – although this could also start earlier, depending on the outcome of Qantas' discussions with the Victorian Government on shorter quarantine arrangements for returning travellers.
"The Kangaroo Route is one of the most iconic on the Qantas international network and we are delighted that Darwin will play a vital role in Australia's post pandemic reopening to the world," said Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce.
"Qantas has been flying repatriation services from London to Darwin as part of the airline’s efforts to help bring Australians home over the past 12 months, so our pilots already have extensive experience operating this particular route."
Perth infamously ruled itself out of the running due to West Australia's insistence on keeping its borders closed until what state premier Mark McGowan has said could be March or April 2022.
Singapore – which has long been the familiar stopover for Qantas' Kangaroo Route – will also be skipped, likely owing to issues with transit arrangements at Changi Airport, although Qantas didn't offer any explanation or comment on that front.
The new Darwin-centric QF1 will take off from 14 November 2021, departing Sydney five times a week at 6.30pm; it'll land in Darwin at 9.25pm for a brief refuelling stop ahead of the 13,800km, 17h20m journey to London's Heathrow airport.
How the Darwin stopover will work
So what does this mean for travellers flying between Sydney or Melbourne and London via Darwin?
Qantas says that passenger transit arrangements will be split into two stages to reflect Covid-safe arrangements in the Territory itself.
In stage one, which presumably starts with QF1 on 14 November, transiting passengers from all Australian states – or returning from London – will be able to visit Darwin Airport's international Catalina Lounge as well as shops and cafes in the international terminal.
Qantas hasn't yet advised on lounge eligibility or access for the Catalina Lounge.
Passengers travelling from London to Sydney and Melbourne via Darwin and wanting to travel onwards to other Australian cities may also be subject to state and territory quarantine requirements.
In stage two – for which Qantas hasn't shared a timeframe, but might be based on an NT vaccination threshold – transiting passengers will have the option to leave the terminal and visit Darwin, providing a tourism boost for the top-end city.
As previously and extensively reported, all passengers on international Qantas flights must be fully-vaccinated with a TGA-approved or recognised vaccine (apart from some exemptions made for medical reasons and children).
They'll also be required to return a negative PCR Covid test at least 48 hours prior to departure, and upon their return to New South Wales, spend seven days in home quarantine.