When Will Australia Reopen Its Borders To Passengers?

There’s bad news if you are contemplating a trip to or out of Australia over the next twelve months. Senior Australian Government officials are saying they don’t expect Australia’s international borders to re-open until the end of 2021. That timeline ties in with current advice concerning the development and availability of any COVID-19 vaccine.

The Australian Government says Australia’s borders will probably remain closed until the end of 2021. Photo: Getty Images

In a speech to Canberra’s National Press Club last week, Australian Government Treasurer, Mr Josh Frydenberg said;

“International travel, including by tourists and international students, is assumed to remain largely closed off until late next year and then gradually return over time.”

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Australia’s borders shut, and look like staying that way

Australia began closing its borders earlier this year. Unusually, the Australian Government banned its own citizens from leaving the country unless exceptional circumstances existed.

Airlines scaled back their services to Australia. Both of Australia’s international airlines, Qantas and Virgin Australia, stopped flying their regular international services in March. Neither airline has since resumed international flights.

By July, it was also increasingly tough for Australian citizens to get home, with strict limits placed on the number of weekly international passenger arrivals. Those passenger limits put pressure on the airlines still flying into Australia.

With government-mandated passenger loads as low as 30 on some flights, airfares soared. There have been horror stories of toddlers stranded for months with extended family overseas, aged parents with dementia stuck in hotel rooms for weeks on end, and families asked to pony up tens of thousands of dollars to book the last available seats home.

Emirates may reduce services if borders stay closed. Photo: Emirates Airways

Travelers stranded as airlines left to clean up a mess caused by government policy

The airlines still flying to Australia must manage this problem while the Australian Government effectively turns its back on its own citizens. Barry Brown, Emirates Australasia boss, has been critical of this. He told local media last week it wasn’t the airline’s job to decide who can fly and who cannot.

“It’s not up to us what is compassionate and what is non-compassionate,” he told The Australian. The airline executive also expressed concern about Australia staying closed for another 12 months, suggesting Emirates would take a long hard look at continuing its services there.

“We’d have to run a fairly heavy forensic lens over the costs,” Mr Brown said. “We’re not going to burn cash just to say we are operating.”

However, some airlines are doing good business flying freight in and out of Australia. While not a huge profit center, freight is underwriting a lot of international flights around the world. There are reports available space for freight on aircraft in and out of Australia is tight, with rates considerably up on 2019 levels.

While Qantas has stopped all international services, AA is back flying to Sydney. Photo: Qantas Newsroom

Freight to the rescue and underwriting some flights to Australia

That’s a rare bit of good news for airlines, if not for shippers. Freight is said to be especially lucrative on transpacific flights to North America, explaining why Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, and American Airlines are still running flights to Sydney. It’s certainly not for passenger revenue.

The really unfortunate thing is that this situation doesn’t look like changing anytime soon. COVID-19 infection rates are very low in Australia, and the Australian Government is keen to keep it that way. That’s fair enough. But they are banking on a vaccine becoming available, and there’s no guarantee that will be the case.

In the meantime, beyond the odd soundbite, there’s a general disinterest at government level in powering up international travel in and out of Australia. That’s not only bad news for people who want to travel, it is a bad outcome for people who need to travel and the airline industry in general.

What do you think? Should Australia’s international borders stay closed until the end of 2021? Post a comment and let us know.