Domestic aviation is facing its biggest challenge since the start of the COVID pandemic as more state borders closed and locally acquired cases emerged nationwide.
Over the weekend, SA closed its borders to Queensland, the NT and ACT; WA shut to Victoria, Queensland, the NT and ACT; and the Greater Darwin area entered a 48-hour lockdown, effectively shutting down air travel.
It followed New Zealand on Saturday night suspending the trans-Tasman bubble to all of Australia for the first time – and hinting it could restart with passengers requiring a negative test to fly.
SA on Sunday closed its borders to four states in addition to NSW because of what Premier Steven Marshall called a “very significant deterioration” in the COVID–19 situation across the country.
Anyone returning from affected locations will now have to do 14 days quarantine at home.
“We’re pleading with people in our state if they develop any symptoms whatsoever to go and get themselves tested,” Premier Marshall said.
“We want to see a very significant increase in testing, effective immediately.”
The Greater Darwin region in the NT on Sunday entered a snap 48-hour lockdown after five new COVID cases were reported that were linked to a Central Australian mine.
“The Northern Territory is now facing its biggest threat since the COVID crisis began,” Chief Minister Michael Gunner said.
“I cannot rule out the lockdown being longer.
“I cannot rule out expanding the boundaries of the lockdown. If it needs to be longer, if it needs to be wider, it will be.”
The stay at home rules effectively rule out interstate travel, too.
Victoria followed swiftly by declaring Greater Darwin a “red zone” and shutting its borders to the region.
It also declared that all travellers from anywhere in the country now require a work permit to enter the state.
WA all-but resurrected its hard border to most of Australia, meaning all arrivals from Victoria, Queensland, the NT, the ACT must undertake 14 days’ quarantine and be tested. Those from NSW are banned outright from entering.
Queensland has yet to enact any new border closures, but recorded two new locally acquired cases on Monday morning, and imposed new restrictions on selected areas.
Finally, on Saturday night, New Zealand suspended the trans-Tasman bubble to all of Australia for an initial three days.
“There are now multiple cases and outbreaks in Australia in differing stages of containment and the health risk for New Zealand in response to these cases is increasing,” said the country’s COVID Response Minister, Chris Hipkins.
“I acknowledge the frustration and inconvenience that comes with this pause, but given the high level of transmissibility of what appears to be the Delta variant, and the fact that there are now multiple community clusters, it is the right thing to do to keep COVID-19 out of New Zealand.”
The combined developments amount to the biggest crisis Australia’s domestic aviation industry has faced since the start of COVID – with no JobKeeper payments to lighten the load.
The last time states and territories locked out NSW at Christmas due to the Northern Beaches cluster, it cost Qantas alone $400 million.
In February, Virgin chief executive Jayne Hardlicka told a senate committee that JobKeeper was necessary for dealing with snap border closures. She said losing the payment – which was eventually axed at the end of March – would be devastating.
Hrdlicka added it might be “impossible” for the business to “bear the financial cost” of operating in a market where borders are opening and closing without warning.
“We’ve got 3,000 highly skilled workers who are currently stood down and, as borders open, we bring them back in and they get hours, and they’re very happy to be back at work; then, when the borders shut, we have to stand them back down,” said Hrdlicka.
“If we did not have those people stood down and ready to go, it would take us weeks to get people identified to come back in, figure out who’s working and who’s not working and get them back in.
“They would all have to be retrained, in order to meet our regulatory requirements, and the volume of people that we would require, to be able to do that, means it’s months to get stood back up and to get the capacity to support the demand.”
It also follows both Qantas and Virgin significantly increasing their networks and capacity. Earlier this month, Qantas announced it would increase its capacity to 107 per cent of pre-COVID levels and Jetstar to 120 per cent.
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