Although most international travel remains at a standstill, the bulk of Qantas’ Boeing 787 jets have continued taking to the skies, operating everything from repatriation services and cargo-only routes through to charter flights to Antarctica.
With all 12 Airbus A380s sidelined for the next three years, and some suggest forever, the smaller, newer and more fuel-efficient Boeing 787-9s have become both flagship and workhorse.
Of the Roo’s 13-strong Dreamliner fleet, only three jets sit idle – the rest continue to cross oceans and continents, albeit differently than before.
Over the next two months, they’ll continue operating repatriation flights, with 20 additional services from London, Europe, India, and other destinations across the next two months.
These flights “will complement scheduled commercial services arriving in our international airports, which continue to provide the main avenue for Australians to return,” said Australian Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack.
With those flights keeping many of the Dreamliners busy in February and March, here’s what Qantas’ 787s have been up to in recent months.
Bringing Australians home from India
India isn’t a destination normally served by Qantas: at least, not since its Brisbane-Singapore-Mumbai route lost its Indian extension many years ago.
But more recently, both Chennai and Delhi have been regulars on the Qantas route map, hosting a number of repatriation flights to bring Australians home.
Since December, flights from Chennai have touched down in both Darwin and Perth, while Delhi flights have generally operated into Darwin and Brisbane.
In some cases, flights from Chennai have detoured via Delhi to collect more passengers, before returning to Australia.
Because these flights are chartered by the government – albeit with passengers still contributing to the cost – they’re not considered ‘commercial flights’, and therefore aren’t limited by Australia’s tight incoming passenger caps as apply to regular airline routes.
Striding from Perth to London, Paris and Frankfurt
Back in 2018, Qantas caught the world’s attention with the first ever non-stop commercial flights between Australia and the United Kingdom, linking Perth with London’s Heathrow Airport.
Although that daily London route remains paused – as with all of Qantas’ regular international network – Qantas has continued to operate some repatriation flights from the UK in the meantime: bringing passengers back to Perth, as well as to Darwin.
Why so many flights to Darwin, we hear you ask?
It’s home to the Howard Springs quarantine facility: once a workers’ camp, but now used to accommodate isolating passengers with access to fresh air and exercise, in lieu of being locked in a CBD hotel room for two weeks, as many other travellers experience.
Down in Perth, the city has also served as a springboard into other European destinations not normally part of the Qantas network, with Qantas running repatriation services from both Paris and Frankfurt.
These were cities served by Qantas many years ago, with Frankfurt being the most recent cut: its axing coinciding with the initial launch of the Qantas+Emirates partnership in 2013.
Still, these repatriation flights mark the first time Qantas flew directly from Perth to both Paris and Frankfurt – routes the airline had been considering for regular commercial service, prior to COVID-19 – and with the return legs from these cities calling into Darwin.
Earlier in 2020, Qantas had flown its Airbus A380s from Sydney to London via Darwin, although Darwin isn’t normally an international gateway for Qantas, except on codeshare flights.
Enjoying a spot of sightseeing over Antarctica
With most Australians stuck Down Under, some have taken the chance to explore Antarctica on a sightseeing flight.
Bypassing international ‘travel bans’ and border controls, these sightseeing flights are treated as simple domestic routes, flying over Antarctica before returning to the same city.
Melbournians got the first Antarctica experience this summer with a Boeing 787 flight, taking wing on New Year’s Eve.
Before the end of February, similar sightseeing services will also depart from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth, with additional flights planned the following summer, where Hobart also gets added to the roster.
These will all be flown using Qantas’ Boeing 787 Dreamliners, having previously been served by Qantas’ Boeing 747s, which have all now been retired.
Keeping cargo moving between Australia and Asia, USA
Despite halting most passenger flights, Qantas continues to run routes to points in Asia and North America: carrying freight, mail, and other cargo items.
These additional cargo-only flights are served by what would normally be passenger aircraft – including Qantas’ Boeing 787s – to help keep supply chains moving.
Among that roster have been regular Boeing 787 flights from Melbourne and Brisbane to Hong Kong, weekly Boeing 787 flights from Sydney and Brisbane to Los Angeles, Dreamliner services from Melbourne and Perth to Singapore, and also from Sydney and Cairns to Tokyo.
In many cases, these services are using flight numbers that passengers might normally see on their ticket – such as QF11 from Sydney to Los Angeles, and QF97 from Brisbane to Hong Kong – even though passengers aren’t being carried, for now.
From January 24, Qantas’ Boeing 787s will also begin making a weekly voyage from Brisbane to Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
Keeping up with demand between Sydney and Perth
Back in December, Qantas – and the travelling public – received a happy surprise, with Western Australia’s border to New South Wales opening one week earlier than anticipated.
To keep up with the sudden surge in two-way travel demand, Qantas quickly swung one of its Boeing 787s into action on the Sydney-Perth route.
This gave domestic travellers a chance to travel aboard what would normally be an ‘international’ aircraft, without leaving the country.
That expedition would unfortunately be short-lived, with Western Australia once again closing its borders to New South Wales that same month: leaving Qantas’ smaller Boeing 737s to carry those passengers still able to travel.
Celebrating Qantas’ 100th birthday
November 16 2020 marked Qantas’ 100th birthday, making it the third-oldest airline in the world after KLM and Avianca, which both celebrated their centenaries in 2019.
As part of Qantas’ own birthday celebrations, it operated a joy flight from Sydney.
Pulling up at the gate for lucky travellers was Qantas’ centenary livery Boeing 787 jet, VH-ZNJ, which took to the skies for that 100-minute joy flight over Sydney.
Overflying Sydney Harbour and other key sights, the Harbour Bridge was also dressed for the occasion.
Beyond its centenary party flight, Qantas operated another Boeing 787 ‘flight to nowhere’ in 2019, with a seven-hour sightseeing flight from Sydney over the Gold Coast, Brisbane, Sunshine Coast, Great Barrier Reef, Uluru, Kata Tjuta, and Sydney Harbour, before landing again in Sydney.
Keeping Qantas’ maintenance staff busy in Los Angeles
With many of Qantas’ Boeing 787 jets kept busy in the skies, Qantas currently has one of its Dreamliners parked at its Los Angeles maintenance base, where it’s been since September 2020.
Other Qantas Boeing 787s have come and gone from Los Angeles over recent months, albeit with an average stay of just one or two weeks on the ground.
Qantas had originally planned to keep the bulk of its Boeing 787s parked in California until regular international travel resumed, but just north-east of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert.
“The humidity in California is much lower than in Australia, so it’s much better for long-term storage of aircraft,” Qantas shared in August 2020.
But as we’ve seen above, Qantas’ Boeing 787s have spent little time in the United States over the past few months – except, that is, for the airline’s newest jets, which have never flown to Australia.
Waiting for their chance to fly from the desert
As airlines generally order new aircraft many years in advance, Qantas had no choice but to continue taking delivery of more Boeing 787s it had on order, even during the height of the pandemic’s travel restrictions.
In September 2020, another Boeing 787 joined the Qantas fleet – pained in full Qantas livery – but which sadly flew from the Boeing factory outside Seattle straight into the Californian desert, being stored in Victorville.
Qantas 787-9 VH-ZNM was ferried from Everett to Victorville today for storage.— Jennifer Schuld (@JenSchuld) September 18, 2020
Unlike yesterday’s test flight, today the name has been covered up pic.twitter.com/HJAK1Aqi0B
That’s also where Qantas is keeping many of its Airbus A380s while they remain parked, and where Qantas sent its Boeing 747s (and before that, its Boeing 767s) when they exited the Qantas fleet.
Come November, that happened once more – but this time, the delivered aircraft only had its tail painted, with the rest of the jet being plain white.
Brand new Qantas 787-9 VH-ZNN was ferried from Everett to Victorville today for storage pic.twitter.com/jNDj3VHcPp— Jennifer Schuld (@JenSchuld) November 12, 2020
As part of its manufacturing process, Boeing requires its 787 tails to be fully painted before being attached to an aircraft under construction, but the body of the jet isn’t then painted until after the build is complete.
By keeping the aircraft plain white for now, Qantas may be trying to preserve cash in the short term – but may have also been planning a special livery for its latest jet, and didn’t want its debut to be a literal ‘flight to nowhere’, seen by almost nobody.
Qantas has yet another Boeing 787 pending delivery (VH-ZNL), and it remains to be seen whether it’ll fly straight into service, or down to California to join Qantas’ growing collection of grounded jets.
Flying into an uncertain future
With most international travel still looking unlikely in 2021 – bar a few ‘travel bubbles’ with destinations easily served by smaller jets, such as New Zealand – it may be a while before Qantas’ latest Dreamliners get their first chance to touch down in Australia.
However, with Qantas keeping all of its Airbus A380s grounded until at least mid-2023, the Boeing 787 will serve as the flagship in Qantas’ fleet, including on routes normally ceded to the superjumbo.
When Qantas’ regular Sydney-Singapore-London QF1/2 flights return, Qantas has already pencilled in the Boeing 787 in place of the Airbus A380, with the same being true of routes traditionally flown by the Airbus A380 across the Qantas network.
Earlier this month, Qantas optimistically reopened international flight sales for travel from July 2021, but the move was quickly criticised by Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, who blasted a broadside saying “decisions about when international travel resumes will be made by the Australian Government.”
“International borders will be opened when international arrivals do not pose a risk to Australians.”
Qantas had been hopeful that as COVID-19 vaccines continue being rolled out around the world – and soon to begin in Australia – that “international travel will begin to restart from July 2021.”
But just how quickly international travel arrives at a ‘new normal’ remains up in the air, for now.