Foreign airlines say international tourism is unlikely to resume by Christmas because there’s too much uncertainty surrounding quarantine requirements and vaccine passports, with one source dismissing the Morrison government’s timetable as “naive”.
Even when the international border reopens, flights in and out of Australia will operate at a “fraction of pre-pandemic levels” due to home quarantine requirements, the airlines have warned.
That means Australians eager to fly overseas could face difficulty securing tickets, the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia (Bara), which represents airlines including Emirates, Etihad and United, said on Wednesday.
The federal government has foreshadowed the international border will reopen by Christmas with seven-day home quarantine for vaccinated travellers entering the country. That, Bara argued, was unlikely to facilitate the return of a commercially viable international aviation industry in the short term.
A core chunk of pre-pandemic travellers were tourists and foreigners without an Australian home to isolate in. They are unlikely to pick the country as a destination in early 2022 if they have to forfeit a week and pay for quarantine accommodation – even if it can be a holiday destination.
This will keep international flight service in – and out – of Australia “at a modest fraction of pre-pandemic levels”, Bara said.
As a result, international airlines believe most of their Australian services in the coming months will be repatriating Australians only. That will serve as a “stepping stone” before they are ready to facilitate outbound and inbound tourism in several months’ time.
The airlines’ frustration appears at odds with comments from the New South Wales premier, Gladys Berejiklian, and the prime minister, Scott Morrison, that fully vaccinated arrivals would be able to bypass hotel quarantine when international travel resumed.
Bara’s tone was also in stark contrast to the fanfare triggered by Qantas earlier this month when it advertised international flights from mid-December.
The suggestion international flights would soon resume sparked excitement in Australia, according to a survey of traveller sentiment, which suggested 59% of people planned to catch a flight, either international or domestic, by March.
However, uncertainty over quarantine and border rules remains a barrier to Australians booking holidays. Of the 4,500 Australians who responded to Inmarsat’s 2021 Passenger Confidence Tracker survey, 53% said they were concerned about quarantine requirements and 40% said they were worried about unpredictable border closures affecting their travel.
Foreign airlines want clarity on key issues, including how home quarantine will work when the international border reopens.
One airline source said “people are awestruck and everyone is so excited to go overseas again and thinks they’ll be going anywhere they want in 2022 – but that is just so naive”.
Bara said it was “simply an unworkable proposition” for airlines to begin selling new tickets into Australia above current quarantine arrival caps without knowing how many passengers they will be allowed to carry or how their vaccine status to qualify for home quarantine will be checked.
The board wants to know from Australian governments: how hotel quarantine caps for unvaccinated travellers will work; how airlines will recognise Australians immunised with foreign vaccines; how tickets will be sold and vaccine requirements enforced; whether a negative pre-departure test will be required to enter Australia; and if rules for aircrews will be relaxed.
Barry Abrams, the executive director of Bara, told Guardian Australia the existing international ticketing system used by airlines did not allow them to obtain a record of vaccination, nor automatically check the authenticity of that proof, at the point of booking. It was also unclear how foreign vaccine proof would be recognised, he said.
Australian border officials needed to explain how they would police vaccination status and confirm that Australia would be responsible for it.
There was the issue, too, of how to sell seats on flights for unvaccinated passengers – for carriers willing to take them – as airlines remained in the dark as to what their passenger allocations would be.
“This is because global ticketing systems are not designed to sell a tiered number of tickets for individual flights based on passengers’ vaccination status, which is unknown to airlines at the point of sale” Bara said in its monthly airline views document.
Another key issue for airlines is whether the requirement for all arrivals into Australia to provide a negative PCR test 72 hours before departure will still be in place for fully vaccinated travellers heading into home quarantine.
“The issue is that Australians are looking at the low number of people in hotel quarantine right now, but that’s not an accurate reflection of the number of Australians wanting to come home who are infected with Covid,” Abrams said.
He said that airlines were seeing up to 5% of Australians booked on flights home forced to abandon their seats at the last minute due to a positive PCR test – far higher than the proportion of positive cases in hotel quarantine right now.
“For every 20 flights of Australians going overseas, that would mean one entire flight of passengers unable to board a flight home. Airlines and passengers need to know if a negative test or any virus in the system, even for vaccinated travellers, will mean they can’t board their flight back.
“To be an airline scheduling flights to Australia now is taking on all of the risk from the government’s lack of clarity.”
Sinagpore Airlines – also a member of Bara – was earlier this month forced to cut the number of flights flying into Australia, citing a lack of information from government.
A spokesperson for the airline said “while we continue to seek clarity on how the Australian government plans to treat inbound arrivals to Australia for those vaccinated overseas, we remain committed to keeping Australia connected in a safe manner and have the ability to deploy more capacity should demand warrant”.
More than 45,000 Australians stranded overseas have registered for government assistance to return home. Australia’s current international passenger intake is 2,285 people a week, and has been significantly cut during the country’s current Delta outbreak.