Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has said the airline may look to commit to extending its Darwin-London route, in light of Western Australia’s uncertain border reopening plans.
An announcement could come in the coming days, as the airline works on its “backup plan” for both domestic and international operations to WA, Joyce said.
It comes after WA Premier Mark McGowan announced last week that his government would no longer reopen its domestic and international borders on 5 February as previously planned.
McGowan said the decision was made due to the Omicron variant being far more transmissible than its predecessors. No new date has been set for the border opening.
It also comes after Qantas was forced to cut its planned domestic capacity by a further 10 per cent through to March, due to WA’s delayed reopening, and said it would put its plans for a restart for Perth-London flights “under review”.
Speaking on 6PR Radio, Joyce said that without being offered any idea of a new reopening plan, or anticipated date, the airline is going to be forced to consider once again committing to options that circumvent the hard border.
“Without knowing when we can assume the borders will open up again, what do we do and how do we plan for that?” he asked.
“For example, the Perth-London service that we were planning to restart in April … without the certainty of knowing that WA will be open in April, the question we have is: do we keep it going over Darwin?
“Because we need to make a commitment to Darwin, because hotels are filling up … we need to base crew in whatever port we are going to be operating from, and if we lose that option, we won’t have a London service.”
Currently, Qantas has an agreement in place with the Northern Territory to temporarily reroute its direct Australia-UK flight through Darwin Airport until “at least” April 2022.
The Qantas boss said his airline, along with other businesses, rely heavily on certainty in order to make appropriate plans in advance.
“Supposedly the fifth of February was locked in, and like all businesses, we’ve got ready for that day.”
Joyce explained how the airline brought all of its staff back online from stand down, and reactivated aircraft, in order to cater to Western Australia once the border opened on 5 February.
“In the first week alone from when the border was supposed to open, we had 20,000 people booked to travel,” he said.
“That was stories of grandmothers who haven’t seen grandkids, parents that haven’t seen their kids for two years … so I think you could imagine the disappointment that that caused.”
Joyce said even if Premier McGowan did set a new date, the airline and other businesses won’t be able to trust that the WA government will commit to that date, given the fact that they had previously committed to 5 February.
“Even if we get that commitment, could something change again, given what happened on the fifth of February?
“It just creates a vacuum, and it creates uncertainty for all businesses … I don’t think that’s good for the state or for the country.”
The Perth-London flight has been in limbo since WA shut its international borders in 2020 and imposed some of the strictest domestic border restrictions in the country.
Qantas confirmed in September that it will “temporarily” reroute its flagship London-Perth service to fly via Darwin until “at least” April 2022.
The airline previously suggested that it might opt to reroute its direct flights between Australia and London via Darwin, as opposed to Perth, in light of Western Australia’s “conservative border policies”.
Then, in October, Qantas hinted that Perth could permanently lose its exclusive status as a transit hub for flights between London and both Sydney and Melbourne, depending on demand.
In a pointed statement, the carrier said it would watch how the new route performs and would remain “open-minded about what it could lead to down the track”, suggesting Darwin could become a more permanent fixture.
Joyce previously said that if the route generates “good interest and good traffic” it could be in addition to the Perth layover.