With travel restrictions easing as Australia pulls steadily away from COVID-19, Qantas is adding more flights to its pared-back domestic schedule.
Even with the proven benefits of video apps like Zoom, business travellers will be back on the road. Families will welcome a winter escape during the July school holidays, while other leisure travellers will find a quick weekend getaway is the perfect salve for itchy feet.
But flying – even if it’s a short Sydney-Melbourne hop – is very different in this post-pandemic world, as Executive Traveller discovered.
We’re doing a Qantas flight from Sydney to Melbourne and back – one leg in business class, the other in economy – to review this new domestic travel experience. Even the timetable is a dramatic illustration of how things have changed.
Sydney-Melbourne is not only Australia’s most crowded air corridor, it ranks as the world’s second-busiest domestic route, averaging 75 flights per day in each direction according to flight data firm OAG.
Yet on the day we travelled – Friday June 12, 2020 – there are just ten flights from Sydney to Melbourne: six by Qantas, three by Jetstar and one by Virgin Australia.
"It’s still early days as we work to get our planes, our people and our frequent flyers back in the air – at least domestically," reflects Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce. "It will be some time yet before things feel truly 'normal'. But there is cautious optimism that we are starting to emerge from what has been a very challenging chapter for everyone."
The day before the flight, an email from Qantas lobs into the inbox and draws attention to the recent introduction of “a number of additional measures to provide peace-of-mind throughout your journey and to ensure a safe environment at the airport and onboard.”
This is part of the airline’s Fly Well initiative, which brings together a number of health measures both on the ground and in the air.
From the passenger’s perspective, much of Fly Well is about limiting contact with others at almost every stage of the journey (not every stage, because it’s hard to limit contact with others when the middle seats in economy aren’t left empty, but we’ll get to that later).
This begins with checking-in for your flight online or via the smartphone app, rather than at airport – thankfully, a habit which comes as second-nature to most frequent flyers.
At the airport
With the flight to Melbourne departing at 7am and boarding from 6.40am, we arrive at Sydney Airport’s Qantas domestic Terminal 3 around 6am to be greeted by a long line to go through a single security channel.
Social distancing means that there’s now a lot more space between passengers, which in turn means the queue stretches back to one end of the terminal.
A second security lane was opened after several passengers had to make their way to the front of the queue to avoid missing their flight.
Lesson: the ‘arrive and go straight to the gate’ strategy is perhaps a little fraught with risk these days, even more so than in normal times.
And there are plenty of other signs to make it clear these are far from normal times. For example, Qantas service desks are fronted by protective plastic screens.
There are stickers and markers on the floor to emphasise the correct social distancing, reinforced by a stream of reminders over the PA system.
More signs and stickers decorate the departure gates, and there’s only a handful of food outlets open in the terminal – a situation that’s not changed when we return to Sydney around 11am, and which is also the case at Melbourne.
“Flying is going to be different for a while, " says Joyce, "but we think that people will be more comfortable getting back on an aircraft again knowing all these things are now in place."
Qantas’ preflight email advises “you'll be offered a bottle of water and a snack during your flight”, so our advice to many travellers – especially when setting out on longer routes – is to eat before you get to the airport and/or pack your own meal box: a hearty sandwich or roll, a salad bowl, a piece of fruit and a snack will go a long way.
If you’re wondering about Qantas’ airport lounges, they’ve been shut since mid-March and won't be opening until July.
Even then, unlocking those lounge doors is likely to be a staggered affair: in cities with both a Qantas Club and a Qantas Business lounge, only one of those might open at first and roll out the welcome mat for all lounge-worthy passengers.
Visitors will also notice many changes to the loungescape, beginning with more space between seating to comply with social distancing requirements and avoid passengers clustering too close together.
However, this will also mean a reduction in actual lounge capacity and the need to place limits on the number of passengers allowed into a lounge – which could see some lounges declared 'full' even with relatively low numbers, and other lounge-eligible travellers turned away.
Hand-sanitising stations will be located near the entry and dotted around the lounge, while self-serve buffets will be replaced by pre-packaged meals and snacks.
Boarding the flight
Our 7am flight from Sydney to Melbourne is the first one of the day, and it’s well-patronised with travellers headed to the Victorian capital to jump straight into the working day or get an early start to a long weekend. The business class cabin of this Airbus A330 is almost full, with economy class around 70% occupied.
Boarding runs smoothly. Business class passengers, along with Platinum- and Gold-grade frequent flyers, can board at any time, while all other passengers are boarded by row, starting from the rear of the A330 and moving forward in blocks of five rows (a maximum of 40 passengers at a time).
The two boarding lanes are property policed, and every passenger is asked to pick up a Fly Well pack as they board, although more of these are available on the plane if requested.
The Fly Well kit contains a face mask and two sanitising wipes, in case travellers wish to wipe down their seat belts, trays and armrests for their own peace of mind – although Qantas says it’s already stepped up aircraft cleaning, using “a disinfectant effective against Coronaviruses, with a focus on high contact areas – seats, seatbelts, overhead lockers, air vents and toilets.”
"We recommend everyone wears a mask for extra peace of mind, which might have seemed odd a few months ago but felt surprisingly normal," Joyce says.
PA announcements at the gate and on the aircraft remind passengers of social distancing as they board and make their way to their seats. This generally sets off a shuffling of feet as people take a step or two back – most of us are clearly used to lining up in the old-fashioned way.
Further announcements on the aircraft point out that there’s no inflight entertainment or WiFi – something also mentioned in the Qantas preflight email, a measure taken to conserve all-important cash as the airline weathers the Covid-19 storm – and suggests that passengers download any content they need before the flight departs.
During the flight
Out of necessity, there’s minimal interaction between crew and passengers apart from handing out meals, which have also been stripped back into a ‘single delivery’ item.
For this morning flight, breakfast in business class is a box containing a bowl of cereal, a container of UHT milk and a small snack bag of dried fruit.
Economy passengers receive a bag of bite-sized biscuits, and everyone gets a small bottle of water, but there’s no tea or coffee service.
In fact there's no drinks apart from that bottle of water, and that includes soft drinks, wine, beer, or spirits, even in business class.
Qantas says this is also to minimise interaction between travellers and cabin crew, but stresses that these 'dry flights' are only a short-term measure.
A Qantas spokesperson says that while the airline has maintained "a simplified inflight food and beverage service" over the past three months, "we expect customers will be able to enjoy a glass of wine or a beer when they fly with us again soon."
Executive Traveller understands that drinks could be back on Qantas flights sometime in July as Qantas airport lounges reopen.
In addition to the lack of WiFi, TV shows and movies, there’s no inflight magazine: so unless you find safety cards to be a riveting read, we suggest extending the BYO meal approach to BYO entertainment.
For what it’s worth, both at the airport and during the flight, very few passengers wore a face mask: we’d estimate less than one in ten.
Perhaps this comes back to that famously easy-going “she’ll be right” Aussie attitude, or that COVID-19 simply hasn’t cut a swathe through our lives in the way it’s affected many countries overseas – testament, perhaps, to an early move to put strict controls in place.
About those middle seats...
Out Melbourne-Sydney flight is on Qantas’ workhorse Boeing 737-800, and it’s also well-patronised.
This is clearly good news for Qantas as the airline ramps up its flying from a scant 5% of its normal level across April-May to 15% by the end of June and, it hopes, 40% by the end of July.
However, with the airline opting to put all economy seats on sale rather than keep the middle seats empty, it means we’re back to rubbing shoulders with fellow travellers.
Qantas addresses criticism of this on two fronts.
Firstly, the airline’s resident medical director, Dr Ian Hosegood, maintains “the data shows that actual risk of catching coronavirus on an aircraft is already extremely low” due to a combination of factors including a “hospital-grade” air filtration system, that fact people don’t sit face-to-face, and the high backs of aircraft seats acting as a physical barrier.
“As far as the virus goes, an aircraft cabin is a very different environment to other forms of public transport,” Hosegood says.
“Social distancing on an aircraft isn’t practical the way it is on the ground, and given the low transmission risk on board, we don’t believe it’s necessary in order to be safe. The extra measures we’re putting place will reduce the risk even further.
Australia’s Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy is in accord, saying these flights present “quite a low risk of transmission. We have not seen a clear case of transmission of the virus on a domestic flight in Australia.”
“The airlines were practising good distancing, they are now occupying their seats more fully… that’s one of the circumstances where we think it's not an unreasonable choice if someone chooses to wear a mask.”
Qantas chief Alan Joyce adds a commercial facet to this: blocking all middle seats would add only 60cm between passengers, which he says “isn’t social distancing”, yet would see airfares rise sharply to make up for the missing passengers.
“If we take the middle seat, airfares will probably go up by around 50%… and so, if it’s not needed, and it isn’t needed by the medical advice, it definitely economically will not be justified.”
All up, our sampling of a domestic flight under Qantas’ Fly Well program proved surprisingly straightforward and relatively stress-free.
The new dictates of social distancing definitely take some getting used to, and it’s clear that flyers need to be a little better prepared when it comes to everything from meals to movies.
The next step in the recovery flightpath will likely include the reopening of lounges, but there could also be speed bumps ahead if the steady increase in passengers collides with social distancing constraints in lounges and at departure gates – so we’ll have to see what July-August brings.
The author travelled as a guest of Qantas