Australia’s success in reducing its Covid-19 cases has prompted domestic airlines to start adding flights, but travellers are quickly learning that the flying experience is noticeably different than before the pandemic.
While international flights remain almost entirely grounded, Australia’s carriers have begun increasing domestic capacity ahead of the busy mid-year school holiday period, which begins over the next two weeks.
Last Friday, budget airline Jetstar put 10,000 seats on sale at just A$19 (S$18) each across 22 different routes. They sold out within four hours. A further 70,000 seats at reduced prices were sold within five hours.
Jetstar and its parent liner Qantas plan to boost their domestic capacity to 15 per cent of pre-pandemic capacity by the end of the month, up from about 5 per cent last month. For Qantas, this is expected to reach 40 per cent by the end of next month.
Virgin Australia, which went into administration in April with debts of almost A$7 million, operated at 6 per cent of its pre-pandemic capacity as of last week and is due to fly at 13 per cent by early next month. Tigerair Australia has not resumed flights.
Meanwhile, the flying experience has changed considerably.
First, passengers arrive at airports that are a shadow of their former bustling selves. Many shops and food outlets are still shuttered, and airport lounges remain closed but may open next month. Hand sanitising stations have been installed across the terminals.
Airlines employ much fewer ground staff, and security screenings have often been reduced to just one line, such that queues of safely distanced people can stretch across the terminal.
As they board, passengers are offered masks, though wearing them is voluntary. Sanitising wipes are also offered for wiping down seat belts, trays and armrests.
Airlines have scaled back meal services – drinks are restricted to bottled water only – and removed in-flight entertainment and magazines. Crew members try to keep contact with passengers to a minimum and people are encouraged to remain in their seats for the duration of the flight.
The federal government has exempted airlines from social distancing requirements. This means passengers sit next to one another – an experience that travellers have reported as slightly unusual.
Mr David Flynn, editor-in-chief of the Executive Traveller website, flew on Qantas and noted: “The new dictates of social distancing definitely take some getting used to, and it’s clear that fliers need to be a little better prepared when it comes to everything from meals to movies. Unless you find safety cards to be a riveting read, we suggest extending the BYO (bring your own) meal approach to BYO entertainment.”
Australia has been winding back Covid-19 restrictions as its case numbers drop. As of yesterday, it had recorded 7,461 cases and 102 deaths. In the past week, the country has recorded an average of 20 new cases a day.
But a lingering impediment to the return of domestic travel is the closure of some state borders. Queensland, which is popular with tourists, is closed but plans to allow interstate visitors to return from July 10 if case numbers remain low.
On June 12, Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce, who flew for the first time since March, admitted it was “a little different to my last flight”.
“It will be some time yet before things feel truly ‘normal’,” he wrote in a post on LinkedIn. “But there is cautious optimism that we are starting to emerge from what has been a very challenging chapter.”