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Part 1: The year that changed Australian aviation

written by Adam Thorn | December 22, 2020

On 31 December 2019, Chinese authorities treated a small number of citizens for a mysterious illness in Wuhan. Fast forward to 23 March 2020, and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced an outright ban on all international flights leaving the country.

This is the story of how coronavirus took our industry by surprise in 2020, as told through snippets of our news stories. In part 1, we outline the events up until Australia shut its international borders. Click the following links to read parts two, three, four and five

31 December

China confirms it’s treating dozens of cases of a mysterious illness in Wuhan. However, authorities stress there is no evidence that humans can spread it. Officials reassure the public that they are actively monitoring the situation to ensure it doesn’t develop into something more severe.

11 January


Chinese media report the first known death from an illness caused by the virus. The man, 61, was thought to be a regular customer at a market in Wuhan but had underlying health problems – most notably abdominal tumours and chronic liver disease.

20 January 

The first cases of the disease outside mainland China are confirmed in Japan, South Korea and Thailand, according to a World Health Organisation (WHO) situation report.

21 January

A 30-year-old man from Washington State who recently visited Wuhan becomes the first US citizen to have a confirmed case of the virus.

23 January

In a dramatic change of tact, Chinese authorities shut down Wuhan, cancelling flights leaving the city and trains, buses, subways and ferries within the province. By now, 17 people have died, and more than 570 have been infected globally.

30 January

The WHO declares what they term “a public health emergency of international concern”. China now pledges publicly to work with the organisation to halt its spread.

31 January

President Donald Trump suspends entry into the US by any foreign nationals who have been in China for 14 days, excluding US residents. At this point, the death toll reaches 213 with 9,300 infections globally.

1 February

Australia follows the US in imposing the same restriction on Chinese visitors. Meanwhile, Qantas announces it will suspend flights to mainland China from 9 February until 29 March. In a statement explaining why there is a week delay before the move came into effect, the carrier says it wants to balance high passenger numbers with travel restrictions, and to allow citizens in China to return home. Globally, British Airways, American, Delta and United make similar moves.

2 February

A 44-year-old man in the Philippines dies after being infected with the disease – the first outside of China. Now, 360 people have died as a result of the virus.

3 February

Qantas begins a mission to repatriate Australians stranded in China. A Boeing 747-400ER departs Australia on 2 February bound for Hong Kong, before travelling to Wuhan. A 14-person volunteer crew, as well as two pilots, take part. Qantas says the call for volunteers was “oversubscribed” with “scores of people putting their hand up to assist”.

Operating as QF6032, the aircraft departs Wuhan at 7:45 am local time on 3 February and arrives in Exmouth, Western Australia at 4 pm. Passengers are then transferred to Christmas Island for a period in quarantine. Passengers and crew are required to wear surgical masks for the journey, which are changed hourly. There are limited food and beverage onboard, and the upper deck of the 747 is reserved for crew use only. Health officials onboard monitor the journey. Qantas says that all of its aircraft, “contain medical-grade HEPA filters as part of the air conditioning system, which significantly reduces the risk of virus spread.” The journey is paid for by the Australian government.

7 February 

Chinese doctor Li Wenliang dies from the coronavirus. He was hailed a hero for trying to ring the alarm bell that the virus had the potential to grow out of control. In early January, authorities reportedly reprimanded him and forced him to sign a statement calling his warning an illegal rumour.

11 February

The WHO renames the infection as COVID-19, an acronym that stands for coronavirus disease 2019. The name is chosen as it does not refer to people, places or animals associated with the virus, to stop future stigma.

14 February

An 80-year-old Chinese tourist dies at a hotel in Paris, becoming the first COVID-19 death outside of Asia, and the fourth outside of mainland China, where 1,500 have now died.

18 February

Singapore cancels 670 flights departing from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, which it blames on the coronavirus. Other affected destinations include LA, Frankfurt, Paris and Tokyo. The scale of the cutbacks take much of the industry by surprise. Globally, COVID-19 causes China’s share of the aviation market to slump from third to 25th according to a new analysis. The nation’s capacity has now reduced by 1.7 million seats. The Official Aviation Guide says, “No event that we remember has had such a devastating effect on capacity.”

20 February

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce asks staff to take annual leave to alleviate losses caused by the coronavirus downturn. The airline also announces reduced capacity to Asia that amount to the equivalent of grounding 18 flights. He tells reporters he thinks the virus could cost Qantas $150 million in earnings this year.

25 February

Global airline stocks plunge as the virus takes hold in Italy, where it has infected 220 and killed seven. In Europe, Easyjet crashes 15 per cent, Ryanair 12 per cent while in the US, American dips 8.5 per cent and Delta 6.3 per cent. The World Health Organisation significantly ups its rhetoric, stating that, even though COVID-19 isn’t a pandemic yet, the world should “do everything you would” to prepare for that eventuality.

26 February

In Italy, a 76-year-old woman becomes the 12th in the country to die of coronavirus. The news and tension cause yet more large share falls for US airlines such as American, United and Delta.

28 February

In Italy, 800 are now infected, while there are 14 cases in other countries that can be traced back to Italy, too. Germany has 60 cases and France 57 – tripling that of just two days earlier.

29 February

A patient near Seattle becomes the first US citizen to die of COVID-19. President Trump responds by issuing a “Do not travel” warning to areas such as Italy and South Korea. The nation also bars entry to anyone who has visited Iran in the last 14 days.

2 March

NSW Health urges anyone who travelled on the Qatar Airways QR908 flight from Qatar to Sydney to “isolate themselves” and then seek a health assessment if they believe they have symptoms of coronavirus. A woman in her 50s on the flight is confirmed as the state’s sixth case of COVID-19. Crucially, the passenger didn’t visit the hospital until six days later.

On Monday afternoon, NSW chief medical officer Brendan Murphy says it is “no longer possible” to prevent new cases of coronavirus from entering Australia. He advises anyone returning from Italy or South Korea not to attend their regular work for 14 days. He says, “We have got concerns about Japan and South Korea. They are working hard to control their outbreaks, but we are still concerned that people in those countries may present with an infection.”

5 March

NSW safety watchdog says that Qantas’ cleaning standards are so poor they could put passengers and staff at risk of catching COVID-19. An inspection note obtained by the Sydney Morning Herald noted how cleaners were wiping tray tables without disinfectant and performing tasks such as handling soiled nappies and dirty tissues without wearing “protective equipment” for “the majority of these tasks”. SafeWork NSW issues Qantas with an “improvement notice” and orders the airline to develop a new system specifically to deal with COVID-19.

6 March

Qantas shares drop 8 per cent, trading at $4.68, a three-year low. The news comes after the airline announces a raft of cuts to its service, including flights to Hong Kong, Auckland, Tokyo and Osaka. Qantas says in a statement, “The coronavirus situation and its impact on international travel demand is evolving, and we’re monitoring closely. Further changes are expected.”

7 March

Virgin Australia doubles down on its commitment to launching a new Brisbane to Tokyo Haneda route on 29 March, despite the coronavirus outbreak rapidly gathering pace. Chief executive Paul Scurrah says the flights are “a real milestone both for Virgin Australia and Queensland, as we become the first airline to connect Brisbane to the closest and most convenient airport in Tokyo”.

9 March

Italy becomes the first European country to enter a nationwide lockdown after 9,172 people test positive for COVID-19, and the death toll rises to 463. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte says Italians will require permission to move around the country for work, health or extenuating circumstances. All sporting events and outdoor gatherings are now forbidden, and a 6 pm curfew on bars, initially only in place for northern regions, is extended to the whole country. “All forms of gathering in public places or sites open to the public” are forbidden.

Closer to home, the ASX suffers its worst day of trading since the global financial crisis, with Virgin shares limping to a record low of just $0.075 and Qantas dropping to $4.15. In total, $136.5 billion is wiped off the index’s $1.87 trillion value. On the same day, Australian Aviation reports how Qantas passengers are forced to wait two hours to speak to customer service staff as many rush to cancel or move flights.

10 March

President Trump tweets, “Last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. Nothing is shut down, life & the economy go on. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!”

11 March

Prime Minister Scott Morrison says all foreign nationals will no longer be allowed to enter Australia if they have visited Italy in the last 14 days. Those that do come back will have to self-isolate. On the same day, Mr Morrison unveils a $2.4 billion health fund to help tackle the fallout from the epidemic. In the US, President Trump makes a prime-time address from the Oval Office to tell citizens he is banning travellers from the EU for 30 days.

12 March

Virgin Australia’s chief executive Paul Scurrah reassures worried passengers that all of the airline’s aircraft are equipped with face masks and hand sanitisers. He insists planes are cleaned every 24 hours and that crew are trained in “cough etiquette”.

13 March

Virgin Australia announces it will not hire new staff and will increase capacity cuts by 7.7 per cent for the first half of the next financial year. However, Scurrahreassures stakeholders that, “As a largely domestic airline, we are less exposed to the impact on international travel. It’s worth noting that domestic operations account for 88 per cent of our passengers and 78 per cent of our flight revenue.”

Separately, Scott Morrison tells Australians to reconsider overseas travel and only make “essential” international trips. More strikingly, he bans gatherings of more than 500 people from the following Monday, excluding schools, universities, schools and transport. He faces criticism for saying that, before the ban is enacted, he will watch the Sharks NFL game at the weekend.

14 March

Despite earlier assurances, the Melbourne F1 Grand Prix is called off despite the larger event getting underway. The move follows McLaren team members testing positive for COVID-19.

15 March

Spain follows Italy in imposing a nationwide lockdown, as cases in the country hit 7,753, with 288 deaths. Residents are ordered to stay at home and are only allowed out to buy food or medicine or travel to work. Some flights from the UK to Spain turn around in mid-air.

16 March

President Trump imposes a 15-day restriction on Americans to slow the spread of coronavirus, including closing schools and avoiding groups of more than 10 people, discretionary travel, bars, restaurants and food courts. “If everyone makes this change or these critical changes and sacrifices now,” Mr Trump says, “we will rally together as one nation, and we will defeat the virus, and we’re going to have a big celebration all together.”

Qantas announces more cuts to its flying schedule after Scott Morrison urges anyone arriving in Australia, from any country to self-isolate for 14 days. Wings overIllawarra, one of the nation’s biggest air shows, is postponed.

17 March

The Qantas Group announces it will cut 90 per cent of international capacity and 60 per cent of domestic until the end of May. The reductions include the grounding of 150 aircraft, almost all of its wide-body fleet. In a sombre message, the airline hints it’s shifting towards helping the national effort to keep the economy moving during the coronavirus crisis, with passenger jets now carrying cargo. Qantas says, “Despite the deep cuts, the national carrier’s critical role in transporting people and goods on key international [and] domestic routes will be maintained.”

France imposes a nationwide lockdown, prohibiting gatherings of any size and postponing the second round of elections. News organisations deem it the most stringent in Europe. Officials warn that even meeting a friend on the street or in a park will be punishable with a fine. France now has 6,500 infections and more than 140 deaths. The European Union votes to close at least 26 countries to nearly all visitors from the rest of the world for at least 30 days.

18 March

Prime Minister Scott Morrison lifts the country’s travel restrictions to a level 4, the highest, advising Australians not to leave the country. “That is the first time that has ever happened in Australia’s history,” he says. “The travel advice to every Australian is, ‘Do not travel abroad. Do not go overseas.’ That is a very clear instruction. For those who are thinking of going overseas in the school holidays, don’t. Don’t go overseas.”

Virgin Australia Group suspends all international flights from 30 March to 14 June, and reduces domestic capacity by 50 per cent for the same period. The cuts are the equivalent of grounding 53 aircraft. Nationally, the federal government announces that $715 million in fees and industry levies will be waived for Australian airlines.

19 March

The Qantas Group announces it’s to effectively suspend two-thirds of its employees and cancel all international flights from late March. Around 20,000 staff are “stood down”, but chief executive Alan Joyce says he is negotiating with Woolworths to see if they can be temporarily relocated there. He says in a statement, “The efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus have led to a huge drop in travel demand, the likes of which we have never seen before. This is having a devastating impact on all airlines.”

19 March

Prime Minister Scott Morrison announces that all non-residents and citizens are banned from entering Australia. He claims 80 per cent of current coronavirus cases are as a result of someone who has contracted the disease from overseas or a contact of theirs. He also pledges to continue trying to get all Australians from around the world home.

20 March

New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, says all non-essential businesses must close and all non-essential members of the workforce must stay at home. “This is the most drastic action we can take,” he says. “We’re going to close the valve because the rate of increase in the number of cases portends a total overwhelming of our hospital system.” Confirmed cases in the city climb to more than 7,000.

Alan Joyce follows Scott Morrison’s announcement by pledging to do everything he can to bring stranded citizens home. “We’re just going through those details with the government at the moment. There could be some international operations that will go past the end of March.” He also uses a number of interviews to urge the government not to nationalise rival Virgin Australia. He says, “It would be completely unfair to our sector. We’d be competing against the Australian government. Qantas couldn’t do that, it would be an unbalanced, uncompetitive environment.”

23 March

Prime Minister Scott Morrison now effectively bans anyone from leaving the country, except for a few specific exemptions. More dramatically, he puts the country in a partial lockdown by announcing the outright closure of social venues such as pubs, clubs, restaurants and cinemas. Speaking in parliament, he says, “We summon the spirit of the Anzacs, of our Great Depression generation, of those who built the Snowy, of those who won the great peace of World War II and defended Australia. For many, young and old, 2020 will be the toughest year of our lives.”

23 March

Rex delivers an ultimatum to the government to underwrite its losses, or else the airline will stop most of its services. Rex’s deputy chairman, John Sharp, argues the previous package of help is not enough, saying, “The federal government has acted swiftly by promising a rescue package to the airlines of $715 million. However, the direct benefit to Rex from this package is only $1 million a month, which is grossly insufficient to cover the $10 million a month we expect to lose running the heavily reduced schedule we announced last week.” He adds that “local councils are also a true disappointment”.

Click here to read part two

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Part 1: The year that changed Australian aviation Comment

  • Andy


    Should probably read, 23rd March Rex offers ultimatum for public to fund its expansion!

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