Many airlines are now planning to resume international flights to and from Australia by Christmas, with Qantas and others betting on a mid-December reopening of the country’s international border. Meanwhile, other airlines that have continued to operate loss-making international flights into Australia throughout the pandemic are preparing to ramp up their schedules within months.
Many mainstream media outlets have been reporting the plans of Qantas and other international airlines as if they’re certain, with headlines like “Qantas confirms international flights will take-off from December 18”. Some people have even booked tickets already.
There’s just one problem: Nobody knows yet for sure whether any of these scheduled flights will actually operate!
Of course, it would be truly fantastic if Australia’s international travel ban and restrictive inbound arrival caps were lifted before Christmas. But the Australian government has not yet provided any details or even a date for the reopening of Australia’s borders! This is the elephant in the room.
Qantas plan to restart flights based on an “assumption”, not official government policy
Qantas has announced its own plan to resume international flights to seven countries from 18 December 2021.
Air Canada and Hawaiian Airlines are also now scheduling a resumption of international flights to Australia from 17 December 2021.
This isn’t confirmation that Australia’s international border will definitely reopen on this date. It’s merely these airlines’ current working assumptions about when they might be able to viably resume international flights to Australia.
As it happens, 17 December 2021 is when the Australian government’s current human biosecurity emergency period (a.k.a. the travel ban) is due to end. But this is just an arbitrary date which is 3 months after the previous 3-month extension was due to expire. Health Minister Greg Hunt has already extended the international travel ban six times in a row.
Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said last month that the airline is in “regular discussion with the government” and that “they agree our broad assumptions are reasonable”.
But Joyce admitted that the airline’s plan to restart international flights “relies on decisions by the Australian Government” and that the government “doesn’t have a crystal ball either”.
The truth is, nobody knows yet exactly when Australia’s border will reopen. And this is not something that Qantas – which keeps calling itself the “national carrier” even though it isn’t – has any control over.
“We can adjust our plans if the circumstances change, which we’ve already had to do several times during this pandemic,” Joyce said.
While various Australian governments have done a lot of talking, much of what has been said is contradictory and nothing is set in stone. The government has not yet provided any guidance to the international airlines flying to Australia and could easily extend or remove the travel ban any time it chooses. Any of the state governments could also extend or remove their international arrival caps at any time, like NSW did last week.
Even if the international flights scheduled to run from mid-December do operate, we don’t know yet what kind of quarantine requirements will be in place for returning Australians. We don’t know if it will be possible to get travel insurance. We don’t know what testing and vaccination requirements might exist (although proof of COVID-19 vaccination is very likely to be a requirement for overseas travel). And we don’t know which other countries will welcome travellers from Australia.
If you’re prepared to take a risk and book an international flight now for travel in December 2021, then by all means – go for it! Australia is on track to reach its target of 80% adult vaccination coverage by December, so international travel may indeed be possible by then.
But there’s no 100% guarantee that flights currently on sale for December will actually fly.
Even Singapore Airlines, which has maintained service to Australia throughout COVID-19, just cancelled dozens of flights that had been scheduled to operate to Australia over the coming months. The airline said that communication from the Australian government about how the country plans to safely reopen has been sorely lacking.
“Whilst we have no clarity on the removal of international arrival caps throughout that October to December period, we’ve had to make the very difficult decision that we simply can’t operate the two additional flights that we were hoping to do into Sydney and to other ports across Australia,” Singapore Airlines spokesman Karl Schubert told ABC RN Breakfast‘s Fran Kelly yesterday.
So if you are booking international flights to or from Australia, for travel in December 2021 or beyond, make sure your ticket is fully refundable in case the airline cancels your flight or you can’t travel as planned!
Which airlines are currently flying to Australia?
The following airlines are currently operating regular commercial passenger flights into Australia as of September 2021:
- Air Niugini
- All Nippon Airways
- Asiana Airlines
- Cathay Pacific
- China Airlines
- China Eastern
- China Southern
- Delta Air Lines
- Etihad Airways
- EVA Air
- Garuda Indonesia
- Japan Airlines
- Korean Air
- Malaysia Airlines
- Qatar Airways
- Singapore Airlines
- Sri Lankan Airlines
- Thai Airways
- United Airlines
- Xiamen Air
Which of these airlines will refund cancelled flights?
If you book with one of these airlines, there is at least a reasonable chance that your flight will go ahead even if Australia’s international travel ban has not yet been revoked. That’s because these airlines are already flying to Australia now. But if the international travel restrictions aren’t relaxed by the time you’re due to travel, there is still a chance you’ll be offloaded from your booked flight – or won’t be allowed to travel anyway.
Of these airlines, most will refund your booking without penalty if your flight gets cancelled. But Malaysia Airlines, Air Niugini and Garuda Indonesia will only give you a refund if your ticket allows this and you’re prepared to pay any applicable refund penalties.
Etihad Airways will refund cancelled flights booked in Australia, but this isn’t necessarily the case for Etihad flights sold in other countries. Scoot also has a special Australian Passenger Flight Disruption Policy, but doesn’t otherwise refund cancelled flights to other destinations.
Meanwhile, Thai Airways warns that “due to the extraordinary circumstances, all refunds are considerably delayed and regrettably, we are unable to provide with an exact processing timeframe”.
You can find more information about airlines currently flying to Australia in Alan Lam’s Guide to Travelling to Australia During COVID-19.
Airlines planning to resume international flights to Australia later this year
These airlines are currently planning to resume international flights to Australia later this year:
- Air Canada – from 17 December 2021
- Air New Zealand – from 1 December 2021
- Fiji Airways – from 1 November 2021
- Hawaiian Airlines – from 17 December 2021
- Philippine Airlines – from 1 November 2021
- Qantas – from 18 December 2021 (New Zealand, Fiji, Singapore, Japan, UK, USA & Canada only)
- Virgin Australia – from 23 December 2021 (Fiji only)
It is unlikely that the Fiji Airways or Philippine Airlines flights to Australia, scheduled to resume in early November, will actually go ahead then. As it happens, 1 November is the day after the IATA northern winter scheduling period begins. So it’s basically just an arbitrary date that these airlines haven’t yet cancelled flights beyond.
Fiji does plan to reopen its border to international tourists in November, but Australians may not yet be allowed to leave.
Air New Zealand’s placeholder date of 1 December 2021 for the restart of trans-Tasman flights is also heavily dependent on whether the New Zealand government reinstates a trans-Tasman bubble.
Tickets being sold on Qantas, Air Canada and Hawaiian Airlines for travel from mid-December are somewhat less likely to get cancelled. But these flights will only go ahead if Australia relaxes its international border restrictions by then.
Which of these airlines will refund cancelled flights?
Of the airlines in this category, Qantas, Air Canada and Hawaiian Airlines say they will give you a full refund if they cancel your flight. Although, beware that Qantas refunds can take 5-8 weeks (or sometimes longer) to process.
Philippine Airlines says it will provide a refund for flights affected by cancellations or travel bans, but this current policy only covers flights until 31 October 2021. That’s the day before Philippine Airlines is currently scheduling a resumption of flights to Sydney and Brisbane!
Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia and Fiji Airways will only refund you for cancelled flights if you’ve booked a refundable ticket. If one of these airlines cancels your flight and your ticket is not refundable, you’ll only be able to rebook for new dates or get a travel credit.
Using points provides greater flexibility
If you would like to book an international flight now, but don’t want to outlay thousands of dollars that may or may not be refundable, another option is to book using frequent flyer points.
Many airlines, including Qantas, are offering greater flexibility on award bookings at the moment. In the case of Qantas, its Flexible Classic Flight Rewards policy allows free cancellations or changes to international Classic Flight Reward bookings made using Qantas points until 28 February 2022, for travel until 31 December 2022.
Join the discussion on the Australian Frequent Flyer forum: Predictions of when international flights may resume/bans lifted
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