**UPDATE: 16:00 AEDST 03/19/20 – The Australian government is issuing a travel ban for all non-citizens effective 21:00 AEDST 03/20/20**
Qantas has announced that it is suspending all international flights. The announcement was made at approximately 08:30 AEDST on Thursday, 19 March 2020. The airline cites the impact of a huge drop in travel demand triggered by the public health response to the coronavirus crisis.
In a statement, Qantas says;
“All regularly scheduled Qantas and Jetstar international flights from Australia will be suspended from end March until at least end May 2020. Some flights may continue in order to maintain key links, based on ongoing discussions with the Federal Government.”
Local competitor, Virgin Australia, announced the suspension of its international services yesterday.
A dramatic gesture by Qantas
It is a dramatic gesture by Qantas and follows its decision earlier this week to reduce international capacity by 90%. The airline would nonetheless have maintained a barebones service.
This morning, Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce said;
“The efforts to contain the spread of coronavirus have led to a huge drop in travel demand, the likes of which we have never seen before. This is having a devastating impact on all airlines.
“No airline in the world is immune to this, with the world’s leading carriers making deep cuts to flying schedules and jobs. Our strong balance sheet means we’ve entered this crisis in better shape than most and we’re taking action to make sure we can ride this out.”
Qantas says it is in discussion with the Australian Government regarding key strategic links. The government had earlier this week put together a USD$415 million assistance package for Australian airlines. The package effectively reimbursed the airlines for government-imposed charges, fuel excise charges, Airservices Australia fees, and regional aviation security charges. That assistance package was backdated until earlier this year and would run through until the end of April
A premature end for the Qantas Boeing 747-400?
Despite suspending international services, Qantas says essential domestic, regional and freight connections will be maintained “as much as possible.” The airline is also further reducing its domestic flying, with a 60 percent reduction to be achieved through cutting frequency.
Today’s decision means Qantas will ground in excess of 150 aircraft, including all of its A380s, Boeing 787-9s, 747-400s and the majority of its A330s. It also spells the probable end of the 747-400 which was slated to be retired at the end of this year.
The announcement also impacts the Qantas low-cost subsidiary, Jetstar. All of Jetstar’s international services will be suspended. A flight I took yesterday on a Jetstar international service was about one-third full.
Jetstar’s international services focus on New Zealand and Asia. The usual reach of Qantas extends further with flights to Europe, Africa, Asia, North and South America.
Australia increasingly isolated
Today’s decision by Qantas means British Airways remains the only carrier serving Australia with direct services to London. Delta Air Lines, United Airlines, American Airlines, and Virgin Australia are all in the process of suspending services between Australia and the United States. It is worth noting that there was a long queue of passengers boarding United’s Sydney – Houston flight yesterday.
Qantas employs over 30,000 workers. It also announced today that it was standing down two-thirds of them in order to preserve as many jobs as possible over the longer term. The Qantas stock price has plummeted and today the airline said payment of a $201 million shareholder dividend would be deferred until September 2020.
It’s a grim situation all round. Suddenly, Project Sunrise is remarkably unimportant. Whilst Qantas is a private airline, the Australian Government maintains a financial and strategic interest in it. One comfort Australians can take is that the government would not let the national carrier fail under any circumstances.