The Antipodean pursuit of “zero Covid” has kept cases and deaths low. However, for 18 months, it has shut Australia and New Zealand off from the world, and, aside from a brief period, from each other. This has had a devastating impact not only on international tourism and inward investment, but, at a personal level, on families who have been kept apart. Finally, it seems, Canberra at least has realised that placing an entire nation in quarantine indefinitely is not sustainable.
Qantas this week brought forward its international restart to November, after the government announced that it would allow fully-vaccinated citizens and residents to travel into and out of the country. It is a long way from a full re-opening – arriving Australians will still have to self-isolate at home for seven days, and foreign visitors remain banned – but it will come as some relief to the flag-carrier which, since March 2020, has been limited to domestic and a handful of international flights.
New Zealand has still to announce plans for relaxing its strict border rules. The government this week announced it will provide an extra NZ$195 million ($134 million) in subsidies to its aviation industry. Like its Australian counterpart, the country’s national airline Air New Zealand has only been able to fly cargo and some repatriation flights internationally, and this has threatened its ability to maintain vital internal air links.
Although there have been spikes in various countries, Covid-19 infection rates appear to be falling finally in key territories, including the USA. However, in August, with the Delta variant on the rise, the recovery in passenger traffic faltered, according to IATA figures. Traffic levels were 56% down on their 2019 levels that month, compared with a reduction of 53% the previous month. A fall in Chinese domestic traffic was a notable factor.
Despite the still very sluggish recovery in international traffic, several airlines that depend on the long-haul sector have been introducing new routes, hoping to exploit a pent-up demand for travel once border rules relax. Among them is Etihad, which, like its UAE compatriot Emirates, is eyeing the African market. The Abu Dhabi carrier this week resumed flights to the country with a connection to Cape Town, and said it would next month start thrice-weekly flights to Zanzibar.
Many countries and airlines see compulsory vaccines for passengers and crew a vital tool in restoring confidence in aviation, and keeping customers and colleagues safe. This week, US senator Dianne Feinstein tabled legislation that would require all domestic travellers to prove they are fully jabbed. The move, however, remains controversial in a country where a strong rebellious and libertarian streak has led to number of air rage incidents involving flyers who refuse to wear masks.
The union that represents pilots at American Airlines has already warned that a vaccine mandate could lead to “mass terminations” in the sector, and hit capacity during the busy festive holiday period. It follows a move by rival United Airlines to issue termination notices to almost 600 workers who failed to comply with a deadline requiring all staff to be vaccinated. The 600 represent fewer than 1% of the workforce.
In previous weeks we have written about airlines rising from the dead – or at least deep hibernation or what seemed like terminal financial crisis. South African Airlines is flying again and Alitalia is being relaunched as ITA. The latest Lazarus of the skies is India’s long loss-making state-owned carrier Air India, which, according to reports, is about to be acquired by Indian industrial conglomerate Tata, which beat a bid from the owner of SpiceJet.
One aviation icon unlikely to make a comeback, however, is the Airbus A380. With production now at an end, increasing numbers of the fleet are being lined up to be scrapped, even though many are barely more than a decade in service. Two former Singapore Airlines superjumbos are to be parted out at a site near Changi Airport by SIA Engineering, which will use the usable components from the dismantled double-decker to provide spare parts for the airline’s existing A380s.