Qantas CEO Alan Joyce says that with the exception of New Zealand and a handful of other 'travel bubble' destinations, all international flying will be suspended until the middle of 2021 unless a coronavirus vaccine is released.
"We might get trans-Tasman (travel) before then, we may get other nations opening up with bubbles," but he doesn't expect the Qantas' international network to restart "in any real size (until) July next year."
"We have to be realistic about it and say with what’s happening in the rest of the globe it is probably an extended period of time" before Australia's borders are thrown open on a pre-pandemic scale, and it would be “years before international flying returns to what it was."
In terms of rebuilding Qantas' overseas network, Joyce suggested that "if there’s a vaccine it may happen rapidly, if there are others ways of testing, of treatment, it may happen a little bit slower."
NZ first, the world to follow
Travel between Australia and New Zealand without a mandatory 14-day quarantine period will be a promising start for Qantas, which like all airlines has been whiplashed by Covid-19.
The two countries remain each other’s top travel destination: 2019 saw some 2.6 million residents of each country jetting back and forth across the Tasman, according to Stats NZ.
"It's a massive market in volume," Joyce said, "and we're hoping with the pent-up demand we're seeing there that could generate some good volumes" of travel.
A September start was previously suggested for the start of the Covid-safe air corridor, but this is now likely to be delayed until after New Zealand's general election is held on 19 September 2020.
Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Fiji have also suggested opening their borders to a handful of countries, including Australia, with Singapore the most likely starter under its 'green lane' proposal.
Rightsizing the Qantas international fleet
As international flying resumes, Joyce says that Qantas' Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners and Airbus A330s will carry the load, with the A380 superjumbos sidelined "for at least three years."
"Because they are too big and the economics are not as good as the Boeing 787s, the A380s have to remain on the ground for at least three years" until international demand recovers, Joyce explains, and in the meantime will be stored at a special facility at California's Mojave Desert "because it's a better environment for the aircraft to be sitting there."
"The environment protects the aircraft a lot more and we have the intention at the right time to reactivate them, but that is a considerable amount of time away."
The smaller and more fuel-efficient Boeing 787-9 will become Qantas' international flagship over the next few years.
"Our view is to restart with the smaller, the newest and the most capable aircraft and establish out network as fast as possible," Joyce says.
"The 787s have 230 seats, they’re half the size of the A380, so we’ll operate them with frequency to Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, London and to the markets in Asia when they open."
In the early days of the pandemic, before Qantas shut down its entire international network, the airline also nominated the Boeing 787-9s to take over from the Airbus A380 on the Sydney-Dallas route, while the QF1/QF2 service Sydney-Singapore-London service was to be re-routed via Perth and become a second daily non-stop Boeing 787-9 to London, alongside QF9/QF10.
With its Boeing 747 jumbo jets now retired with immediate effect, Executive Traveller understands that Qantas is considering an Airbus A330 to take over the jumbo's routes to South Africa and South America, with one A330 flying Sydney-Perth-Johannesburg and another flying Sydney-Auckland-Santiago.
However, Joyce remains confident of pressing ahead with non-stop Project Sunrise flights to London, Paris and New York once Covid-19 is well behind the airline, saying "it is my every intent that when we can get Qantas back into flying, when we can turn the business around, that we will be doing Project Sunrise,."