11 Sept 2021
The country’s airports have warned the federal government that foreign airlines are at risk of pulling out of Australia even as the country reopens its international border, leading to fewer seats and higher prices, unless clearer plans are locked in immediately.
Meanwhile, Trade and Tourism Minister Dan Tehan has flagged high demand is likely to lead to long wait times for Australians needing to renew their passports before they can get on a plane.
“The department is doing everything it can to prepare but longer than usual processing times can’t be ruled out … once you’re fully vaccinated, it’s time to dust off your passport and make sure it is still valid,” Mr Tehan said.
Submissions to former health department secretary Jane Halton’s second review of the quarantine system, obtained by The Sun-Heraldand The Sunday Age, reveal the airport sector is alarmed about a lack of preparation for the resumption of overseas travel once 80 per cent of Australians are vaccinated.
The cautious reopening being planned by the federal government is centred around a series of “bubbles” with Singapore, the Pacific Islands, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and United States. It is expected vaccinated Australians who travel to those places will be able to quarantine at home upon their return.
Quarantine arrangements for Australians who go to other countries have not been decided, though it is likely there will be a system for grading countries according to COVID risk, with “proportionate” quarantine requirements applying.
Last week Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said the home quarantine period for those coming from low-risk countries could be as low as two to four days.
However, Sydney Airport and the Australian Airports Association have raised doubts about the government’s reopening plan, saying airlines need long lead times to re-establish flights, and insufficient information has been provided to allow services to restart.Advertisement
“Some international carriers are either already drawing down capacity or preparing to withdraw from Australian ports altogether,” the AAA said in its submission to the review.
This may have “significant effects” on phases C and D of the national plan to reopen the country, it said. “Given the aviation industry has long [six to 12 months] lead times for carriers and airports to re-establish international routes, significant planning will need to occur now to ensure airports and airlines are ready.”
Separately, Sydney Airport said: “It is crucial Australia remains in the minds of airlines’ network planners, and therefore we need to be outlining what re-opening in Australia looks like now.”
It also estimated that each international flight that lands is resulting in a $5000 loss due to fixed operating costs and very low passenger numbers.
Both airport groups were especially concerned about “red lane” arrivals from high-risk locations. The AAA said while hotel quarantine was currently the “bottleneck” in the system, once borders opened airports would become the “pinch point”.
The New Zealand travel bubble had demonstrated the difficulty of safely separating “red lane” arrivals from “green lane” arrivals, as well as space and infrastructure constraints in terminals.
AAA chief executive James Goodwin said even those foreign airlines still flying to Australian airports could withdraw from the market. Cash-strapped carriers were choosing their destinations now as the rest of the world opened up ahead of Australia, he said.
“If they don’t know what the rules or protocols will be for Australia eight or nine months from now, we could lose them for 2022. Then we’re looking at 2023,” Mr Goodwin said. “Even if we are talking about being open the middle of next year, those conversations need to be happening now.
“The reality is when we are ready to open up we may not have as many airlines as we were used to. We may find airfares will be more expensive and we may find we have difficulty getting tourists into Australia.”
Ms Halton’s review, due to be handed to the federal government later this month, is expected to lay out options for home and hotel quarantine once borders reopen. Qantas has said its plan to restart flights to select destinations in December is contingent on home quarantine being allowed.
Commonwealth officials will this week share samples of Australia’s vaccine certificates with border and health authorities around the world to ensure that the systems are in place and working when Australia’s borders reopen.
The certificate will include the holder’s passport number as well as all the necessary vaccination details specified in the global standard and endorsed by the World Health Organisation.
“We want to get this tested and trialled with as many like-minded countries as possible,” Mr Tehan said. “[The certificates] will go to our overseas network of embassies. We are very keen to get things in place with Singapore, the Pacific Islands – Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa, the Solomons and the Cook Islands – as well as Japan, South Korea, the US and the UK.”
Deals with more countries are expected to come in the coming months, with the European Union an obvious candidate in the near-future – subject to government-to-government recognition of vaccination certificates – which would lower quarantine requirements for travellers to Australia.
James Massola is political correspondent for the Sun-Herald & Sunday Age. He won the Kennedy award for Outstanding Foreign Correspondent while posted in Jakarta and wrote The Great Cave Rescue. He was previously chief political correspondent.Connect via Twitter, Facebook or email.