Repatriations & Reopened Borders: Qantas’ 2021 Revisited

Qantas has experienced a rollercoaster year – a series of encouraging upswings and dramatic downswings. The big Australian airline wraps up 2021 on a note of cautious optimism. International flying is back, sort of, and domestic networks are recovering. There’s a way to go, but there’s a mood the worst is behind Qantas.

2021 has proved a turbulent year for Australia airline Qantas. Photo: Qantas

A positive start to the first half of 2021

Twelve months ago, Qantas was in the doldrums. Its international network was shut down, and domestic flying was at skeletal levels. But early in 2021, there were some signs of life that domestic networks would recover.

Interstate border restrictions began coming down, allowing people to move around much of Australia relatively freely. Qantas was soon reporting strong demand and healthy bookings. The airline also got creative, launching a swag of new domestic routes to utilize aircraft and keep crews in the air.

In April, the momentum continued when the much-talked-about quarantine-free two-way travel corridor between Australia and New Zealand finally kicked off. Qantas and its low-cost subsidiary Jetstar put on up to 122 return flights per week between the two countries.

Qantas said until the travel corridor began, it was running just 3% of its standard trans-Tasman capacity. The travel corridor saw that figure jump to 83%. However, after the initial rush, demand settled, and capacity was quietly decreased.

The travel corridor between Australia and New Zealand was short-lived. Photo: Getty Images

Qantas’ fortunes began to turn mid-year

Still, hopes were high the worst was over. But that proved not to be the case. By May, fresh waves of COVID began rolling through Australia. Domestic flights were one of the first casualties at Qantas as local border restrictions sprung up again. All the domestic flying gains made at Qantas had been lost by mid-year. Late in July, New Zealand hit the pause button on the travel corridor.

It was to be a dark winter for Qantas. But some aircraft did stay in the air. Since March 2020, Qantas has flown hundreds of Australian Government underwritten repatriation flights. Those flights originated in 31 offshore destinations, including 19 Qantas never normally flies to.

Among the most noteworthy was a 9,332 mile (15,020 kilometer) nonstop flight from Buenos Aires to Darwin in October 2021 that took nearly 18 hours to complete. Aside from getting stranded Australians home, these repatriation flights kept some aircraft and crews working.

Qantas’ ultra long haul repatriation flight from Buenos Aires in October captured plenty of attention. Photo: Qantas

Another corner turned as some international flying resumes

Around October 2021, as vaccination rates in Australia soared, Qantas seemed to turn another corner. After a lengthy lockdown, Sydney opened up. Melbourne soon followed. Domestic operations got a reboot. However, only recently have most other State capitals started grudgingly welcoming residents of those cities.

More importantly, Qantas resumed its first regular international flying since March 2020 on November 1, 2021. When New South Wales dropped its quarantine rules, Qantas rebooted flights between Sydney and Los Angeles and Sydney and London. International flights from Melbourne soon also restarted.

It was a small but highly symbolic start. Since then, a handful of other destinations have been added, included Singapore and Nadi. It’s only eight weeks in, but importantly, these flights have held up.

The Qantas A380 is now expected to start flying passengers again on January 11, 2022. Photo: Qantas

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Qantas A380s back in the air in January

Qantas has brought forward the reintroduction of its A380s – grounded since March 2020. Most recently expected to be back in the air in March 2022, Qantas yesterday confirmed the mega jumbo would start flying passengers on the Sydney – Los Angeles run three times a week from January 11.

Proving that COVID still has the power to upturn the airline industry, Qantas isn’t putting on the A380s services in response to passenger demand. Instead, quarantine rules in Queensland are playing havoc with Qantas’ Dreamliner crew rosters. Pulling in the A380 and its crews is a stopgap measure to counter that.

2021 was a tumultuous year for Qantas. The airline appears to be in a better position now than it was 12 months ago. But the only certainty right now is uncertainty, and as COVID had taught everyone in the airline industry – everything can change again next week.