Virgin Australia says it still intends to launch flights to Tokyo as part of the airline's future long-range network, although it isn't putting a timeline against that promise.
Fortunately, the clock doesn't seem to be ticking too loudly towards the use-by date for the airline's slot at Tokyo's Haneda Airport, which was initially granted in pre-Covid times in the lead-up to Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games with the proviso that daily flights began by March 31, 2020.
Qantas was also given one spot for a route between Australia and Tokyo/Haneda, and opted to have its Melbourne-Tokyo service move from Tokyo's distant Narita Airport to the more downtown Haneda Airport, while Virgin Australia opened a fresh Brisbane-Tokyo route alongside a new partnership with Japan's ANA.
Neither of those flights took off, of course, being cancelled weeks before their launch in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The International Air Services Commission (IASC) – which oversees Australia's international airline activity, including routes and airport takeoff and landing slots – has already pushed back the necessary start date to 31 October 2021 "due to the impact of COVID-19 including travel restrictions put in place by the Australian Government since March 2020."
Don't use it, don't lose it...
And the IASC remains lenient on when the airlines pick up those Tokyo flights, with a spokesperson telling Executive Traveller "the Commission will consider any further requests from Qantas and Virgin to extend the date of utilisation of their capacity allocations on the Tokyo-Haneda route beyond 31 October 2021 having regard to all relevant information before it at that time."
In other words, Virgin's placeholder at Tokyo remains safe for now, rather than being in a 'use it or lose it' situation.
A Virgin Australia spokesman told Executive Traveller that the airline "has retained its capacity allocation in Tokyo Haneda with the intention of commencing Australia-Japan services in the future."
Earlier this week the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission blocked a proposed joint business agreement between Qantas and Japan Airlines on the grounds it would reduce competition on Australia-Japan routes as international travel resumes.
Virgin Australia told the ACCC "it would be more difficult to enter the Australia-Japan route if it is required to compete with Qantas and Japan Airlines acting jointly rather than as individual competing airlines," the consumer watchdog reported.
For Tokyo, Virgin needs planes that'll go the distance
But to begin flying between Brisbane and Tokyo, Virgin will need to lease or buy aircraft with longer range than its Boeing 737s, due to Bain Capital dropping the airline's Airbus A330 and Boeing 777 jets as part of its 'Virgin Australia 2.0' reboot.
In December 2020, newly-minted Virgin Australia CEO Jayne Hrdlicka said that while the airline had previously floated plans to relaunch long-range travel with up to eight fuel-efficient Boeing 787-9s, "we won’t go straight back to widebody flying in the next 18-24 months."
At the time, a Virgin Australia spokesman told Executive Traveller "we remain in discussions with aircraft manufacturers on a fleet strategy to support the reintroduction of widebody services when long-haul international travel demand returns."
Meanwhile, Qantas has now pencilled in a restart of Melbourne-Tokyo/Haneda from February 15 2022, at three flights per week.
While Brisbane-Tokyo flights remain TBA, it's noteworthy that in Qantas' previous plans for an October 31 resumption of international flying, Melbourne-Haneda was set for four flight per week, with Brisbane-Haneda served three times weekly – thus splitting the IASC's allocation of a 'daily Haneda slot' across two routes and allowing Haneda to become Qantas' sole Tokyo hub.