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Part 5: The year that changed Australian aviation

written by Adam Thorn | December 23, 2020

Australia's domestic carriers at Sydney Airport. (Seth Jaworski)
Australian domestic carriers at Sydney Airport. (Seth Jaworski)

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 five, we report how the country opens up but then closes down once again. Click the following links to read parts one, two, three or four

21 October

Queensland and WA’s border closures cause Brisbane-Cairns and Perth-Broome to become the two most popular Qantas routes in the country during the recent school holidays. Pre-COVID, the three busiest domestic routes were between the so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ of flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane. Queensland opened up to NSW on 10 July but then closed to Sydney again on 1 August, while the NSW-Victoria border shut for the first time on 6 July and the WA border has remained closed to all other states since the start of the crisis.

23 October


The first of Qantas’ second batch of government-supplemented repatriation flights departs London on Thursday bound for the Howard Springs quarantine facility. The flight carries around 175 passengers, all of whom pay $2,000 for a ticket alongside a $2,500 charge for the time spent in isolation. The flight comes just a week after the government announced it is to increase the capacity of the NT’s quarantine facility and charter a new round of repatriation flights from both London and India. Thousands of Australians in the UK have argued they are struggling to book flights home due to ‘arrival caps’ reducing availability and increasing prices.

26 October

The TWU announces it will resume negotiations with Virgin over working terms after suspending talks the day before Paul Scurrah apparently resigned as chief executive. National secretary Michael Kaine says the organisation, and other unions, will go back to the table with new owner Bain after receiving information “reconfirming” the carrier’s plan to become a mid-market hybrid and not a low-cost carrier.

27 October

It emerges Qatari authorities forced 13 Australian women to remove their underwear for a genital examination at Doha’s Hamad International Airport against their consent. The invasive procedure, which took place on 2 October, was apparently carried out because staff found a premature baby abandoned in a bathroom. In response, the Australian government says it has formally registered “serious concerns” with Qatari authorities over the incident that witnesses say subsequently left women in tears.

The state of Qatar effectively owns both Hamad Airport and the flag carrier, Qatar Airways. In June, Australian Aviation reported how Qatar Airways’ share of passengers travelling to and from Australia leapt from just 3 per cent to 44.5 per cent in April. The jump meant the carrier, owned by the namesake state, was by far the biggest in terms of passengers carried.

Later, one of the women subject to the invasive search reveals authorities locked the ambulance door before telling her to undress. The passenger, who spoke anonymously to the ABC on Monday, says, “Everyone had gone white and was shaking. I was very scared at that point, I didn’t know what the possibilities were. When I got in there, and there was a lady with a mask on and then the authorities closed the ambulance behind me and locked it. They never explained anything. She told me to pull my pants down and that [she] needed to examine my vagina. I said ‘I’m not doing that’ and she did not explain anything to me. She just kept saying, ‘We need to see it, we need to see it’.”

The woman continues that she was eventually let out of the ambulance and ran over to the other girls but added there was “nowhere for me to run”. She eventually removed her clothes and was inspected, and touched, by a female nurse.

28 October

The state of Qatar finally apologises for any “distress or infringement” felt by women forced to undergo a genital examination at Doha’s Hamad Airport. However, the statement comes three days after the story was revealed publicly and almost one month after the incident itself occurred on 2 October. The Qatari government says in a statement the baby was rescued from “what appeared to be a shocking and appalling attempt to kill her”.

“This was the first instance of an abandoned infant being discovered in such a condition at HIA [Hamad Airport] – this egregious and life-threatening violation of the law triggered an immediate search for the parents, including on flights in the vicinity of where the newborn was found,” reads the statement.

“While the aim of the urgently-decided search was to prevent the perpetrators of the horrible crime from escaping, the State of Qatar regrets any distress or infringement on the personal freedoms of any traveller caused by this action. His Excellency Sheikh Khalid bin Khalifa bin Abdulaziz Al Thani the Prime Minister and Minister of Interior of the State of Qatar has directed that a comprehensive, transparent investigation into the incident be conducted.

“The results of the investigation will be shared with our international partners. The State of Qatar remains committed to ensuring the safety, security and comfort of all travellers transiting through the country.”

2 November

Australian Aviation photographer Lenn Bayliss may have captured the moment a former Virgin 737 was being readied for delivery to new rival Rex as staff paint over its iconic tail branding. Rex previously announced it was close to a deal to lease six 737-800 NG aircraft to fly its new network between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, with speculation insisting some were from Virgin’s trimmed fleet.

Flightradar reveals VH-VUF msn 34168 departed Brisbane on 30 October as flight VA9908 at 8:20am and landed at Wellcamp half an hour later, when the photos were taken. The developments come after Rex announced in September it had signed a letter of intent with two lessors that will see three of the Boeing aircraft ready to fly between Sydney and Melbourne at launch, with another two to follow by Easter and the final one shortly after.

4 November

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announces NSW will become the first state to remove its border to Victoria on 23 November. She tells reporters the decision is a “calculated risk” but that it was important to “keep moving forward”. “I have confidence that everyone will continue to work hard to keep everyone safe,” Premier Berejiklian says. “With that, comes some risk and we accept that, but we believe that is … a calculated risk and we are confident our health system and the processes we have in place in NSW will allow that to happen.”

10 November

One of the COVID vaccines purchased by Australia is “90 per cent effective” and could begin being rolled out worldwide by the end of the year, in the most significant breakthrough in the crisis yet. Global pharmaceutical giant Pfizer says its jab’s performance is better than expected and will soon submit data to the FDA, the US drug approval agency. Pfizer chief executive Dr Albert Bourla declared the vaccination will “help bring an end to this global health crisis” and comes just a week after the IATA said aviation’s recovery had “hit a wall” due to a second wave of infections. Last week, Australia announced it had purchased 10 million doses of the vaccine produced by Pfizer/BioNTech, which is one of the world’s leading candidates. The country has also agreed to deals with candidates from Novavax, the University of Oxford and the University of Queensland.

11 November

The Federal Court knocks back a final plea from shareholders to halt the sale of Virgin Australia to Bain. The decision means the company will finally exit administration early next week but will leave many of those who invested in the company without any return at all. On 25 August, administrator Deloitte revealed the sale would see unsecured creditors, including bondholders, receive between just nine and 13 cents in the dollar on their investment, while shareholders would walk away with nothing.

Employee entitlements and customer travel credits, however, will be covered in full. While many of the larger shareholders, such as Nanshan, Etihad and Singapore Airlines, accepted the write-off, a number of small parties fought on.

12 November

Rex is set to challenge the new-look Virgin as a mid-market ‘hybrid’ and offer business class seats and catering when it launches flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane from March. Deputy chairman, John Sharp, also says the airline has ambitions to launch a frequent flyer scheme and access to lounges for more expensive seats.

16 November

Queensland, Tasmania, the Northern Territory and WA close their borders to South Australia after a COVID cluster in Adelaide grew to 17 cases. Authorities believe the infection originated from somebody who worked in their hotel quarantine facilities and the state itself has reintroduced tough restrictions on residents and suspended international flights.

17 November

Qantas pulled a surprise on the evening of its 100th birthday yesterday when one of its 787s flew over Sydney Harbour at low altitude and ‘blew out’ candles illuminating the Harbour Bridge. The Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, VH-ZNJ msn 66074, departed Sydney Airport at 6:61pm as flight QF100 and flew south to Shellharbour where HARS Aviation Museum was holding a black-tie dinner in celebration, before heading north again. The stunt is a collaboration between Qantas and Destination NSW and involved lighting up the Harbour Bridge with 1,300 LED tubes, 126 LED fixtures and 38 searchlights.

18 November

Jayne Hrdlicka begins her first day as Virgin chief executive doubling down on the reborn business’ plans to become a mid-market ‘hybrid’ and not a budget airline. “Australia already has a low-cost carrier and a traditional full-service airline, and we won’t be either,” says Hrdlicka. “Virgin Australia will be a mid-market carrier appealing to customers who are after a great value airfare and better service.” Yesterday, Virgin officially exited administration and new owners Bain took charge, with ex-Jetstar boss Hrdlicka taking the role vacated by Paul Scurrah.

However, Hrdlicka starts her first full day in the job by unveiling details of Virgin’s relaunch and strongly insisting it will fill the gap between Jetstar and Qantas. “Today, we’ve announced a plan that will ultimately give our customers what they value without the big price tag: premium lounges, a new and fresh retail offering onboard, a choice of cabins, better digital technology and a more streamlined check-in experience.”

19 November

Rex finally signs off on a $150 million investment that will allow it to launch flights between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane from March next year. The airline will draw down an initial $50 million in January next year from PAG Asia Capital and the deal will see the APAC organisation nominate two directors to sit on the board.

The pair first revealed they were in advanced negotiations in September but today’s news means the airline can confirm it will fly Sydney–Melbourne with three aircraft on 1 March 2021, before ramping up to five by Easter. “Once the initial services are well established, we aim to progressively grow our fleet to cover all the major cities in Australia,” says executive chairman Lim Kim Hai.

20 November

Sir Richard Branson confirms he’s acquired a 5 per cent stake in the new Virgin Australia, days after the airline exited administration. Speculation had suggested he was keen to maintain the 10 per cent holdings he held in the business prior to its administration but has settled for less while also agreeing on a new licensing deal for his corporate branding. On Tuesday, new owners Bain formally took over the company and on Wednesday, Jayne Hrdlicka started her first day as the new chief executive, promising to stop Virgin becoming a low-cost carrier. Virgin Group founder Sir Richard says in a short statement issued on Thursday evening, “I’m delighted that Virgin Australia is ready for take-off once more, soaring out of administration, with a clear future direction to fly towards.

23 November

Passenger flights between Sydney and Melbourne finally resume following the lifting of border restrictions between NSW and Victoria after 137 days. On Monday alone, Qantas and Jetstar operated 17 return flights carrying 4,500 passengers, while Virgin operated four. Pre-COVID, Melbourne-Sydney was the second busiest route in the world carrying 10 million people per year. Qantas and Jetstar alone operated up to 45 flights per day and often one every 15 minutes during peak periods. At the height of the shutdown, it dropped as low as one per day.

24 November

Qatar’s prosecutor files criminal charges against police officers working at Hamad Airport for their role in the invasive search of 18 women. Authorities now say the defendants face “penalties of a maximum of three years” for instructing medical staff to force genital examinations on the passengers, of which 13 are Australian. Qatar also claims to have charged the mother of the abandoned baby, who sparked the search, with attempted murder and launched legal proceedings to arrest her.

24 November

The TWU submits its plan to Qantas to retain up to 2,000 ground-handling jobs earmarked for outsourcing. National secretary Michael Kaine says the bid, compiled with consulting firm EY, is “competitive” and has identified “numerous efficiencies and savings”. “We urge Qantas to award the work to their loyal, dedicated workers who they have invested time and money in training up to the high standards that Qantas passengers expect,” says Kaine. “Qantas workers should be allowed to do Qantas work.”

30 November

Qantas rejects a proposal from the TWU to retain 2,000 ground-handling jobs and confirms the roles will be outsourced. The airline says the bid from the union on behalf of employees didn’t save enough money compared with rival offers from third-party providers and was too “theoretical”. Qantas, however, says the proposal didn’t meet its objective, which it cited as reducing the cost of ground handling operations by $100 million and avoiding large spending on equipment such as aircraft tugs and baggage loaders. “Qantas granted three separate extensions to the original deadline for the bid following requests by the TWU, doubling the total period to 12 weeks,” the business says in a statement.

1 December

Australia’s Golden Triangle between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane finally reopens after Queensland lifts its border restrictions to the NSW capital and all of Victoria. Qantas and Jetstar estimate 9,000 passengers were booked to travel on Tuesday from Sydney and Melbourne to Queensland. The airline group now says it will operate more than 420 return flights per week across 19 routes between Queensland and both Sydney and Melbourne. This compares with around 40 return flights per week when borders were closed. It also means Sydney-Brisbane and Melbourne-Brisbane have returned to their pre-COVID position in the top three busiest air routes in the country – effectively re-establishing the so-called Golden Triangle.

2 December

Australia’s long-mooted goal of removing all state borders by Christmas could be on after WA announces it will drop restrictions to NSW and Victoria next Tuesday. Premier Mark McGowan, however, warns he will not hesitate to reinstate the restrictions if there is a further outbreak of COVID. “Western Australia does remain susceptible to an outbreak given nearly all physical distancing and gathering restrictions have been removed,” he says on Tuesday.

3 December


Jayne Hrdlicka scores an early victory in her tenure as Virgin chief executive after securing a deal with four unions over working terms. The agreement with the TWU, FAAA, ASU and ALAEA will see employees accept an 18-month to two-year pay freeze in exchange for a guarantee that no jobs will be outsourced. “We know we’ve asked a lot of them as a result of the operating environment we find ourselves in, and we are grateful for their understanding and support throughout,” says Hrdlicka. “We have all worked together in a very tight timeframe in order to be able to bring certainty to our people prior to the holiday period. We believe the outcome we have achieved working together with the unions will help to create a sustainable future for our airline, and means we can secure more jobs and look to grow again as the aviation market recovers.”

4 December

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce brushes aside Rex’s threat to his business’ market share, arguing the regional airline will be hamstrung by its “limited network” and higher ticket prices. Responding to a question from Australian Aviation on Thursday, Joyce says, “We’re very confident in our relative position and what that means for our market share, which should be above 70 per cent going forward.” Qantas currently estimates it holds around 70 per cent of the market, about 10 per cent more than it did pre-COVID.

9 December

The heavyweight lawyer who helped win the infamous Waterfront dispute files a landmark ‘test case’ against Qantas over its plans to outsource 2,000 ground handling roles. The TWU tasks industrial relations specialist Josh Bornstein with arguing in the Federal Court that the airline’s proposals contravene the Fair Work Act. If successful, a potential ruling could have major ramifications for other businesses hoping to outsource roles. Qantas is likely to strongly contest the action. The business has been adamant it rejected the TWU’s rival bid because it didn’t meet its core objectives, which it cited as reducing the cost of ground handling operations by $100 million and avoiding large spending on equipment.

14 December

New Zealand pledges to drop its border restrictions to Australia in the first quarter of 2021. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says she will name the exact date in the new year and added any opening will not take place until contingencies were in place to deal with a future COVID outbreak.

18 December

Victoria’s Health Minister warns residents not to travel to all of Sydney, in an enormous blow for domestic aviation. Martin Foley says the state could soon shift to requiring mandatory quarantine if the outbreak in NSW’s Northern Beaches worsens. On Friday morning, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian revealed there had been 10 new COVID cases, and urged residents to continue to stay at home for the next few days. In response, many states and territories enforce quarantine. However, it is Victoria’s warning that will be the most damaging, as domestic aviation gears up for what should have been its busiest week of the year. Queensland only opened to Greater Sydney on 1 December and NSW to Victoria on 23 November.

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