Australia’s flag carrier, Qantas Airways, is looking to resume flights to and from South Africa on 1 July 2021. But that may make no difference for South Africans who do not receive a coronavirus vaccine by then.
Qantas officially halted its South African flights in November 2020 and announced the closure of its international ticket offices until “at least October 2021”. The airline’s previously bleak outlook has now abated somewhat due to advancements in the production and distribution of coronavirus vaccines.
“Qantas has aligned the selling of our international services to reflect our expectation that international travel will begin to restart from July 2021,” the airline said in a statement on 5 January 2021.
Qantas has one of the largest international fleets in the world, and is a popular carrier among South Africans, with the 14-hour non-stop flights between Johannesburg and Sydney connecting expatriates with family and friends. Prior to the pandemic and associated travel restrictions, Qantas offered six direct flights a week between South Africa and Australia.
Qantas’ dismal performance during the 2019/2020 financial year, which was compounded by a host of travel restrictions, saw the Australian carrier post a R22 billion loss. The worst financial result in a century saw it cut 6,000 jobs as part of its cost reduction strategy.
But with the Covid-19 vaccine’s international arrival, CEO Alan Joyce has expressed a hint of optimism regarding Qantas’ future flight plans. In August 2020, Joyce commented that, until a vaccine was readily available to all citizens, international travel would remain in a state of limbo.
In November, while announcing the suspension of South African flights, Joyce added that all future passengers would need to be vaccinated against Covid-19 in order to board Qantas’ international planes.
“Yes, we are going to change our terms and conditions to say [to] international travellers… we will ask people to have a vaccination before they can get on the aircraft,” said Joyce.
“Will we need that domestically? We’ll need to see what happens with Covid-19. But certainly, for international visitors and people leaving the country, we think that [vaccine] is a necessity.”
Joyce’s comments regarding mandatory vaccination for travel purposes – a point which was recently echoed by the US’ top Covid-19 advisor Anthony Fauci, and Sani Aliyu of Nigeria’s Presidential Task Force (PTF) – have been met with mixed reactions.
Despite fierce criticism, Joyce reiterated the airline’s stance on mandatory vaccinations in December.
“I acknowledge some people are opposed to vaccines in-principle… we respect that. But in return, we ask everyone who travels on Qantas and Jetstar to respect our safety protocols – which will include a Covid vaccine for international flights.”
Joyce added that a recent survey conducted by Qantas found that 87% of respondents would gladly accept the Covid-19 vaccine if it were a requirement to travel internationally.
Joyce’s firm stance follows similar remarks made by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who said that vaccines would be "as mandatory as you can possibly make it”. Morrison, unlike Joyce, quickly backtracked following public criticism and assured Australians that the Covid-19 jab would not be mandatory.
Since then, Morrison has adopted a far more hesitant approach to the administration of Covid-19 vaccines in Australia, citing problems with the UK’s “emergency” rollout.
"Australia is not in an emergency situation like the United Kingdom. So we don't have to cut corners. We don't have to take unnecessary risks," said Morrison.
But for South Africans hoping to jump on the first Qantas flight to visit friends of family in Australia, delays in the acquisition of Covid-19 vaccines are likely to put the brakes on those travel plans.
Ordinary South Africans are only expected to get the jab sometime near the end of the second quarter of 2021 at the earliest, with a target of reaching 67% of the population by the end of the year.