The global airline industry has again warned that Australia is underprepared for the restart of international travel, and risks being a non-commercially viable market for airlines if the issues hindering the industry remain unresolved.
It comes after Tourism Minister Dan Tehan confirmed that the country’s international borders are expected to re-open by Christmas “at the latest”, and follows a number of industry bodies repeatedly suggesting that there is still a lot of work to be done before Australians return to the skies.
According to the Board of Airlines Representatives of Australia (BARA), which represents a number of international airlines including Emirates and Etihad, the Australian government must provide certainty on key “immediate issues” as soon as possible if it wishes to see Australians flying by December.
Firstly, BARA outlined that international passenger caps need to be revised and confirmed, so airlines can plan flight schedules accordingly.
Current understanding suggests that the Australian government may introduce different caps for the entry of vaccinated and unvaccinated passengers, however BARA said that this method will be difficult for airlines to implement.
“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.
“As such, airlines will not know if the passenger is included within the cap allocation at the point of sale.”
Further, unclear messaging on pre-flight testing and vaccination requirements for travel could also cause chaos for airlines when demand for travel ramps up well beyond current levels.
The industry group suggests that the processing of international arrivals will need to be “substantially streamlined if there is to be any increase in international passenger numbers”.
Currently, it takes 10-20 minutes to process each passenger that arrives into Australia, in order to check and verify their health data, which would see wait times at airports blow out once passenger numbers increase dramatically.
“Removing travel restrictions in tandem with bringing in the QR codes covering vaccination status with electronic verification should greatly reduce how long it takes to check-in departing passengers,” BARA said.
However, the planned QR code vaccine passport will link only with Australia’s Medicare system, so it is not yet known how border officials will verify the vaccination status of people who were not vaccinated in Australia.
The industry body said that the government implementing a means of recognising the vaccine status of people that got the jab overseas “would be of the utmost benefit in helping more Australians return home before the end of 2021”.
It’s the latest in a slew of calls made for the government to provide immediate clarity on rules and procedures around international travel, as Australia’s vaccine rate continues to surge towards the coveted 80 per cent of its adult population.
While airports have comfortably adapted to cater to current overseas repatriation efforts, the industry remains in the dark about some key requirements for a mass return of international flights, said Australian Airports Association CEO James Goodwin.
“At the moment, we still don’t know what procedures will be for passengers coming in from overseas, and what is needed of airports, airlines, staff and government agencies to facilitate that,” Goodwin told Australian Aviation earlier this month.
“There are long lead times in aviation, so six or 12 months is not actually a long time in our world. So a lot of this planning could have and should have been done a long time ago.”
Specifically, Goodwin said the industry is unaware of exactly how the government wants passengers to be screened both before and after their flights, and how passengers who must enter hotel quarantine will be separated from others.
“It’s so important that we know what those rules and protocols will be for passengers as soon as possible, including how they’ll be screened, because if we need to make changes to our terminal to account for that, it will take time,” he said.
“Airports weren’t designed to be separating passengers based on their health or their vaccine status, so we need to prepare.”
Brisbane Airport’s executive general manager for aviation Jim Parashos said that both the state and federal governments should be making such decisions in close consultation with the industry.
“Guidance, teamwork and collaboration are absolutely key here, and I urge both the state and federal governments to work with airports and airlines to make sure we’re active participants in this crucial decision-making,” Parashos said.
“We know that the process for incoming passengers is going to look different whether you’re from a ‘green’ COVID-safe country, or an amber or a red country, and it’s really important that airports and airlines are involved in those decisions and understand them.”
Goodwin agreed, stating, “We’re here to help facilitate this process, we want to reopen Australia, but there’s a lot involved with this and we don’t want to get it wrong.
“The planning needs to be done right the first time, every airport is a little bit different, and we need to develop a uniform approach to pre and post-flight processing, as well as quarantine arrangements, and this is why it’s important that decisions are made in consultation with us.”