Will Australia Fully Reopen Its Borders This Year?

Australian Government officials have flagged Australia’s borders staying firmly shut for most of 2021. This is despite a COVID-19 vaccine getting rolled out around the world. Having successfully kept the worst of COVID-19 at bay, the Australian Government is in no hurry to re-open its borders to international travel, saying they don’t know how well the vaccines work and whether they will put the brakes on transmission.

Australian Government officials have hosed down hopes of the Australian border re-opening anytime soon. Photo: Getty Images

Australian health czar says borders are likely to stay closed for most of 2021

Speaking on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s News Breakfast program on Monday, the Australian Government’s health czar, Professor Brendan Murphy, said;

“I think our border measures have been one of the reasons why we never really had significant community transmissions other than that second wave in Victoria.”

The Australian Government declared a human biosecurity emergency in 2020. Since then, its international borders closed to almost everyone, including tens of thousands of Australians trying to get home. That border closure is currently in place until mid-March. When asked if he expected to see Australia’s border restrictions lifted then or later in 2021, Professor Murphy said;

“I think the answer is probably no. Even if we have a lot of the population vaccinated, we don’t know whether that will prevent transmission of the virus.”

Professor Murphy is a key figure in the Australian Government’s COVID-19 decision-making team. On Monday, there were zero new cases of locally acquired COVID-19 throughout Australia and eight new cases among the small number of quarantined Australians allowed home.

Australia’s health czar, professor Brendan Murphy. Photo: Getty Images

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Qantas hedges its bets

While this is good news from a health perspective, it is bad news for airlines and people trying to move in and out of Australia. Aside from some Australian Government-subsidized repatriation flights and a few New Zealand services, national carrier Qantas isn’t operating scheduled international services. But it has scheduled a full roster of international flights from July 1 and is selling tickets on those flights.

Last week, Qantas’ CEO, Alan Joyce said;

“It’s obviously the government’s decision, and we said that the government will make a call when the timing’s right. And I think the government wants to get to that situation where it’s comfortable that we can open up the borders and the population is fully protected from that.”

As for tickets going on sale for flights from July, Mr Joyce said;

“That (flights starting) could change, it could be a bit later, it could be around then. And we just have the flexibility to manage that schedule and depend on what the government decision is going to be at the time.”

What does this mean for other airlines flying in and out of Australia?

Those airlines still flying into Australia are struggling under strict limitations on the number of passengers they can fly in. This can be as low as 40 passengers per plane. In addition, tough new quarantine conditions have come into effect for airline crews. This combination has seen Emirates end its flights to Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. Philippine Airlines and Air Niugini have also recently pulled out of Australia. Japan Airlines is set to temporarily end their flights to Australia in February.

In response to the Emirates decision, competitor Qatar Airways posted on social media their commitment to the Australian market. Qatar Airways is presently the biggest international operator in Australia.

Qatar Airways this week reaffirmed its commitment to the Australian market. Photo: Qatar Airways

Simple Flying has approached several other international airlines for comment on their plans regarding flights to Australia in 2021, given Professor Murphy’s comments yesterday.

The three big United States airlines all still fly into Sydney, ferrying freight and a few passengers cleared to travel. Delta Air Lines told Simple Flying they continue to evaluate their schedule and make adjustments as needed based on customer demand and government travel directives.

A spokesperson for United Airlines, Jonathan Guerin, told Simple Flying;

“United Airlines has been the only US airline to consistently operate passenger service between the United States and Australia during the entirety of the pandemic.

“United has been a leader in nimbly reshaping and adjusting our schedule and will continue to monitor and evaluate customer demand for travel between the U.S. and Australia.”

The only US airline to have maintained flights to Australia throughout the pandemic is United Airlines. Photo: United Airlines

Singapore Airlines plays a straight bat with Australian border speculation

Meanwhile, Singapore Airlines says it remains committed to keeping travel and trade corridors open. Spokesperson Karl Schubert told Simple Flying today;

“We won’t be drawn on speculation regarding changes to Australia’s border restrictions. Our focus is on monitoring the current restrictions and travel demand and remaining nimble and flexible to ensure capacity can be quickly deployed to meet demand.

“As we have done throughout the pandemic, we will continue to monitor the market to ensure we are appropriately deploying capacity to destinations as required.”

One of the consequences of the ongoing Australian border closure and the severe limitations on airline capacity is tens of thousands of Australians stranded overseas. There are reports some Australian citizens are seeking asylum in countries like the United Kingdom because they cannot get home. Professor Murphy’s comments yesterday are not good news for them or the airlines trying to get them home.