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Top 10 Australian Aviation stories for 2021

written by Hannah Dowling | December 24, 2021
Virgin Australia opposes Qantas's proposed codeshare with Cathay Pacific. (Rob Finlayson)
Virgin Australia and Qantas aircraft lined up at BNE. (Rob Finlayson)

As 2021 draws to a close, now seems like an appropriate time as ever to take a look back at our biggest and most-read stories for the year.

Unsurprisingly, as we navigated yet another year of the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s biggest stories largely revolved around the reopening of Australia’s international borders, the return of the Airbus A380s to our skies, as well as some unfortunate mid-air mishaps.

Let’s get into it.

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10. International travel to resume in November with 7-day home quarantine

After months of speculation, and off the back of Australia’s rapid vaccine rollout, Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed on 1 October that from November, Australia’s international borders would finally reopen for fully vaccinated Australian citizens and residents.

While an exact date was not set at the time, PM Morrison said states would be free to gradually begin accepting overseas arrivals once they hit the coveted 80 per cent vaccination target.

At that time, the news came with a few caveats, the most notable being that returned travellers would need to enter a seven-day home quarantine period upon arrival. As you may know, this rule was thrown out by the NSW government just weeks later.

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9. International crew going hungry in overnight hotels

Back in March, the Board of Airline Representatives spoke out against harsh and “chaotic” quarantine arrangements for flight and cabin crew, which was seeing staff arriving to hotels and being sent immediately into isolation without the opportunity to eat a meal.

It came after NSW, and many other states, changed the rules in January to ask international crews to quarantine at state-managed hotels and take a COVID test at the airport. Previously, airlines could organise their own transport and accommodation, so long as the details were shared with authorities.

“A holistic approach to supporting the commercial viability of a minimum network of flights and the wellbeing of staff is needed, as industry participants face what is one of the most difficult periods of the pandemic to date,” BARA argued.

8. Sheep farmer issues RAAF cease and desist noise notice for $15.3m

In April, a sheep farmer living near RAAF Base Williamtown took the Air Force to the NSW Supreme Court after it ignored a “cease and desist” notice she personally issued to stop flying aircraft over her property.

Julie Steepe, representing herself, argued that the RAAF owed her $15.3 million for “trespass” on her farm at Bulahdelah, which contravened her “lawful right to quiet enjoyment of my property”.

Justice David Davies dismissed the case at the time and ordered her to pay costs. Steepe later vowed to continue fighting against the RAAF’s excessive noise even if it bankrupts her.

7. International travel ban to lift in November

As early as September, the government began to covertly hint that international travel would return, as promised, once the 80 per cent vaccine target was met in November. One major step was when it was revealed that the government planned to drop its ban on overseas travel in November.

Since March 2020, the federal government had imposed a ban on Australian citizens and residents leaving the country, unless they receive a valid exemption.

Then, just days after it announced the ban would be extended to mid-December, the government slyly revealed a new plan to drop the ban as early as November, following the introduction of a fit-for-purpose vaccine passport.

It’s important to note that this story dropped about three weeks before Prime Minister Morrison officially revealed the government’s plan to reopen travel to citizens and residents – which is likely why it got so much traction!

6. Resurrected! Singapore A380 departs Alice Springs boneyard

In February, the first Singapore Airlines A380 left the Alice Springs “boneyard” after a nearly year-long stay in the desert.

The Airbus A380-841, 9V-SKQ msn 079, departed Alice Springs and headed to Sydney, where it underwent routine maintenance checks, ahead of a planned interior retrofit back in Singapore.

Singapore Airlines, as the launch customer for the double-decker, said it plans to retire seven of its A380 ahead of schedule in light of the COVID pandemic, but crucially keep 12 in service.

We later published a video found at the moment 9V-SKQ took off from Alice Springs before beginning its multi-stop journey home.

5. Qantas reveals additional requirements for overseas travel

Just days after the federal government announced its plan to reopen borders to Australian citizens and residents from November, Qantas boss Alan Joyce came out with a number of key requirements that Aussies can expect when getting back on flights for the first time post-pandemic.

Speaking to journalists at the International Air Transport Association (IATA) annual general meeting, Joyce revealed that Australian passengers will still need to undergo at least four COVID tests, as well as be fully vaccinated, when flying the airline internationally.

He said that passengers will generally be required to complete a pre-flight COVID test both before leaving Australia and prior to their return flight, as well as complete two additional tests during their seven-day home quarantine stay, on top of being fully vaccinated.

The fact that this story saw strong traction is unsurprising, given the fact that Australians were clearly keen to get back out into the world, and the federal government’s announcement from days earlier lacked critical details, like testing requirements.

4. Cessna pilot fell asleep mid-air for 40 minutes

Here’s a bit of a wildcard for you – and just shy of the top three, too.

In May, an extraordinary ATSB investigation revealed that a Cessna 208B Caravan pilot who fell asleep mid-air for 40 minutes in July 2020 was likely impacted by “inadequate sleep the night before” and mild hypoxia triggered by the aircraft’s oxygen system.

The ATSB’s acting transport safety director, Kerri Hughes, said the hypoxia alone was unlikely to have solely caused the incident, which was due to a combination of “fatigue and mild hypoxia, possibly exacerbated by dehydration and diet”.

While cruising at 10,000 feet, the pilot encountered unforecast icing conditions and poor visibility due to the clouds and climbed to 11,000 feet and began using the aircraft’s supplemental oxygen system intermittently. (Pilots are required to continuously use supplemental oxygen when flying unpressurised aircraft, such as the Caravan, when flying above 10,000 feet.)

When the aircraft was about 53 kilometres west-north-west of Sunshine Coast Airport, air traffic control (ATC) unsuccessfully attempted to contact the pilot regarding their planned descent into Redcliffe, the investigation notes.

Following repeated calls to the pilot, ATC enlisted the assistance of pilots in nearby aircraft to contact the Caravan pilot, who was seen to overfly Redcliffe and track towards Brisbane.

At 5:35pm, after 40 minutes without contact and when the aircraft was about 111 kilometres south-south-east of the intended destination, the pilot woke up and ATC communications were re-established.

3. Qantas dilemma as international borders to shut until 2022

In May of this year, long before Australia’s vaccine rollout began to pick up its pace, the Australian government moved its official estimate as to when its international borders will reopen from later this year to 2022 – putting Qantas in a spot of bother.

At the time, the Flying Kangaroo was working towards the goal of reinstating its international network from 31 October.

However, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg confirmed ahead of his budget address that the government was now not planning to reopen international borders until Q2 2022.

The news was not only a huge hit for Qantas, but for every travel-hungry Australian desperate to get out of the country after (at this time) over a year of lockdowns and restrictions.

2. Exclusive: Inside Qantas 747 stored in boneyard for 8 years

Boeing 747 enthusiasts came out in droves to read and interact with this story, in what became not only our number two most-read story for the year, but one of our most popular of all time.

In May, incredible footage emerged showing the decrepit remains of a Qantas 747 that has been stored in a Californian boneyard for more than eight years.

TikTok user Ashley Hall captured a video of VH-OJQ, which took its final flight from LA to Victorville in November 2012 as flight QF6021. The video showed a battered cockpit and falling-apart cabin that would have sweltered in 40-degree temperatures during multiple summers.

Click the link above to check out the video if you missed it!

1. International borders to open in December, says Qantas

And here we are, our top story for the year. Not just that – but this was our topmost-read story in Australian Aviation history, thanks to the team’s lightning-fast reporting.

When Qantas released its annual financial results in August, it dropped a treasure trove of projections and assumptions for the future of Australia’s travel industry, which at the time still remained very much in limbo as a new wave of Delta strain COVID infections spread through NSW and Victoria.

Despite this, Qantas announced that both international and domestic borders are on track to open by December 2021 off the back of Australia’s fast-paced vaccine rollout, in a major prediction that was at the time considered quite bullish.

According to projections completed by the airline at the time, Australia was on track to reach 80 per cent vaccination in its adult population by December, allowing both state and international border restrictions to ease.

However, Qantas did note that the international reopening is likely to be “gradual”, with a focus on low-risk countries first, including those with high vaccination uptake including the UK, US, and parts of Asia.

From mid-December, Qantas and Jetstar planned to reinstate international schedules between Australia and low-risk countries, including Singapore, the US, Japan, the UK, Canada and Fiji.

The airline also planned to reinstate services between Australia and New Zealand, projecting a restart of the currently paused trans-Tasman travel bubble, also in December.

Meanwhile, Qantas at that time pushed back its planned return to higher-risk destinations, such as Bali, Bangkok, Manila and Johannesburg, until April 2022.

“Levels of travel demand – and therefore, capacity levels – will hinge largely on government decisions on alternative requirements to mandatory hotel isolation for fully vaccinated travellers,” Qantas noted at the time.

“The prospect of flying overseas might feel a long way off, especially in New South Wales and Victoria in Lockdown, but the current pace of the vaccine rollout means we should have a lot more freedom in a few months’ time,” said Qantas CEO Alan Joyce.

“It’s obviously up to the government exactly how and when our international borders reopen, but with Australia on track to meet the 80 per cent trigger agreed by national cabinet by the end of the year, we need to plan ahead for what is a complex restart process.

“There’s a lot of work that needs to happen, including training our people and carefully bringing aircraft back into service. We’re also working to integrate the IATA travel pass into our systems to help our customers prove their vaccine status and cross borders.

“We can adjust our plans if the circumstances change, which we’ve already had to do several times during this pandemic. Some people might say we’re being too optimistic, but based on the pace of the vaccine rollout, this is within reach and we want to make sure we’re ready.”

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