COVID-19 Vaccine Approval Could Bring UK-Australia Travel Bubble Closer

For those with families split between the UK and Australia, hopes of spending Christmas together this year have been dashed. But with promising news of a vaccine on the horizon in Britain, is there scope for an ultra-long-haul travel bubble between the two nations? Daniel Bloch – Principal at Bloch Aviation Advisory – and Linus Benjamin Bauer – Managing Director at Bauer Aviation Advisory – shared their thoughts with us.

Could the UK’s vaccine efforts prompt an ultra-long-haul travel bubble? Photo: Qantas

Vaccine news has hope surging in the UK

December 2nd of 2020 saw a major milestone in the ever-unfolding global struggle against the Coronavirus, with the UK Government and MHRA officially approving the joint Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for public roll-out as soon as next week. In turn, this makes the UK set to become the first major Western nation to begin distributing a COVID-19 vaccine.

As such, the UK has made an existing order for 40 million doses of the US-German joint-venture’s vaccine, which would be sufficient for 20 million people given the jab’s double-dosage requirement. However, a popular and successful uptake of the vaccination, which is reported to be 95% effective against COVID-19, could see a rapid increase in additional orders, alongside the prospect of additional viable immunizations from the likes of Moderna (95% – USA), AstraZeneca (62-90% – UK) and Gamaleya (92% – Russia).

With the first batch of doses set to arrive on UK soil in the coming days, the Pfizer-BioNTech jab is considered the fastest-ever vaccine to go from concept to finished and distributed product.

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A different experience down under

Simultaneously on the opposite side of the world, Australia has experienced a vastly different pandemic reality to that of most other countries, with community transmission of the virus having been all but eradicated for some months. Major cities like Melbourne and Sydney have surpassed more than a month without a community transmission of COVID-19, whilst secondary cities such as Perth not reporting a local case of the virus since June.

REX’s Boeing 737-800 are former Virgin Australia planes. Photo: REX

In turn, this has given the country the confidence to re-open all of its internal borders, with domestic travel efficiently up-scaling, and looking well on its way to re-discover pre-pandemic levels over the coming months. In an apt reflection of this, along with the clear levels of pent-up demand for air-travel among business, leisure, and VFR demographics, Qantas and Virgin have quickly looked to reinstate much of their former domestic networks, along with the ongoing establishment of an array of new point-to-point routes such as Perth-Hobart, Gold Coast-Canberra, and Melbourne-Busselton.

In a further symbol of confidence, local airline Regional Express Airlines (REX) recently acquired 10 of Virgin Australia’s former 737-800s in a bid to diversify its regional offerings and enter the hotly contested primary-to-primary city markets; including the ‘golden triangle routes’ among Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

Scope for an ultra-long-haul travel bubble

With the respective contexts considered above, it is clear that the scope and foundation for an Ultra Long-Haul (ULH) air bubble between the UK and Australia has been laid. Indeed, governments and airline industry bodies alike have insisted that health factors must, and will continue to be, the most important priority in considering the reinstatement of international air-connectivity.

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, himself recently stated just as much, suggesting that proof of vaccination “for international visitors coming out and people leaving the country” would be “a necessity” for travelers “before they get on the aircraft.” However, with a vaccine set to be widely distributed among the UK populous, the likes of Joyce will now be on the front-foot, pragmatically looking at the logistics of reinstating services between the UK and Australia.

Qantas’ Alan Joyce wants all passengers vaccinated before they fly. Photo: Getty Images

This intent would be built off the recognition of the clear pent-up demand for travel between the two major commonwealth countries, ranging from nationals stuck overseas trying to get home, to family members desperate to reunite with loved ones, to business people that require in-person meetings where a Zoom call would not suffice.

An easy-ish task for Qantas

Fortunately for Joyce, the prospect of mobilizing a UK-Australia air bubble could be a relatively efficient exercise. As has been well-covered, prior to the pandemic, Qantas had successfully operated its direct, Ultra Long-Haul service between Perth and London on their Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, and has run a range of repatriation flights to the British Capital over the course of the pandemic.

Qantas has been running repatriation flights to the UK already. Photo: Qantas

To this extent, up-scaling the QF9/10 route back into regular service, even to the effect of a once-daily operation, would hold little fear for Qantas, with the airline having kept a sufficient number of Dreamliner aircraft out of storage. Importantly, such Ultra Long-Haul operations would afford a uniquely safe and healthy service, with the direct routes not requiring a stop-over in densely populated hub transit airports such as Dubai, Doha, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc., whilst also making use of the smaller, less-densely configured Boeing 787 aircraft.

With the Qantas Dreamliner holding just 236 seats (Qantas’ A380 holds 484 passengers), each patron across each of the business, premium economy, and economy classes is afforded greater amounts of space, as is becoming increasingly custom to the Ultra Long-Haul experience. In turn, such core features of Ultra Long-Haul operations inherently synergize with the newfound requirements and customer preferences that have manifest from the implications of COVID-19.

Resultantly, the various pieces of the stakeholder puzzle now seem to align behind the instatement of a UK-Australian air-bubble, thereby affording the two countries with an opportunity to become pioneers of post-pandemic travel, whilst giving its well-connected citizens a chance to reunite in the knowledge that they are safe and coronavirus-free.