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Australia: International airlines won’t sell tickets home until rules clear

International airlines are not selling tickets to Australians desperate to return home this summer because they do not know if strict arrival limits will be in place, nor what testing, quarantine and vaccination rules will apply.

The Morrison government has flagged that it may open the border and lift the ban on Australians leaving the country before Christmas, while Qantas is planning to reboot parts of its international network from December 18.

But foreign airlines still flying to Australia are delaying opening up their bookings to more passengers until the government explains who will be allowed in and out of the country, and on what conditions, according to Barry Abrams, executive director of the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia (BARA).

“International airlines are currently sitting on a very large number of empty seats that they will not have the confidence or ability to sell … because they don’t know what the arrangements are,” said Mr Abrams, who represents major international carriers.

“They’re holding back, waiting for clarity from government on those key issues to be resolved.“

Airlines flying to Australia – which include Emirates, Singapore, Etihad, United, Qatar and Cathay Pacific – are sometimes carrying as few as 10 people per inbound flights (financially underpinned by freight volumes) in order to stay below arrival limits to match capacity in hotel quarantine. That limit is around 300 per day nationwide.

There were 395,442 available seats on aircraft flown into Australia in July, according to Department of Infrastructure data. Only 69,698 were occupied by passengers, and 325,744 were empty.

Meanwhile, there are more than 44,000 Australians registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as wanting to return home, with many hoping to secure seats on government-chartered repatriation flights.

Mr Abrams said the most pressing issue was how to manage an arrival cap on unvaccinated travellers – or those jabbed with a vaccination not approved by Australia – while also selling seats to an unlimited number of Australians who would not have to go into hotel quarantine.

Airline ticketing systems were not designed to allocate a tiered number of seats based on passengers’ vaccination status, and so airlines might stop selling tickets to anyone who needed to go into hotel quarantine, he said.

“It puts airlines in a very difficult position – will they continue to operate flights to just this very small number of capped passengers?” he said.

Clarity was also needed around how Australians could prove they had been vaccinated overseas to avoid hotel quarantine, he said, given the announced “vaccine passport” was linked with the Australian Immunisation Register.

Likewise, travellers needed to know whether they could return to Australia if they left and caught COVID-19 overseas; and airlines needed to know how passengers arriving and departing the country will be processed at the airport, which currently took 10 to 20 minutes per passenger.

“When the first plane was to arrive with say 200 passengers, it’ll take 10 hours to clear that one flight,” Mr Abrams said.

Qantas is selling tickets on flights to the UK, the US, Japan, Singapore, Canada and Fiji from December 18 and 19, and says it has consulted the government about its plans.

Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said on Tuesday that there was a “real prospect” of his airline restarting its international flights from mid-December as planned.

However, Mr Joyce said demand would depend on quarantine and testing arrangements, which ideally would move beyond home quarantine to a rapid “test and release” system used in many countries, where an inbound traveller only needs to isolate until they return a negative COVID-19 test. “So … you don’t have to go into a form of quarantine but worst case, it’s some form of home quarantine,” Mr Joyce told Melbourne radio station 3AW.

Singapore Airlines cancelled a swathe of international flights between October to December earlier this month, citing the continued uncertainty around when international passenger caps would be lifted.

Karl Schubert, a spokesman for the airline, said on Tuesday that the carrier continued to “seek clarity on how the Australian government plans to treat inbound arrivals to Australia for those vaccinated overseas”.

“We remain committed to keeping Australia connected in a safe manner and have the ability to deploy more capacity should demand warrant,” he said.

Under the National Plan agreed to by the federal, state and territory governments, Australia will start opening its international border to “safe countries” with reduced requirements for fully vaccinated travellers once 80 per cent of the adult population is double vaccinated.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in Washington DC that would happen before the end of the year, while Tourism Minister Dan Tehan said last week that he hoped the border would be open by Christmas “at the latest”.