With schools reopening, intrastate travel to be allowed in NSW, and most states loosening social distancing rules, it’s interstate travel that is the latest talking topic on Australia’s coronavirus escape agenda.
The past two months, non-essential interstate travel to states such as Queensland has been restricted in an effort to curb the spread of COVID-19, with people only allowed to cross borders for compassionate reasons or essential work.
Catching one of the minimal flights available has been unimaginable or even “eerie” according to Sydney man Elliot Luxton who last week commuted to Brisbane to visit his injured mum.
There’s an application process and you must provide documentation at departure and arrival, with the Australian Federal Police (AFP) to ultimately determine if you can enter your destination state. But these strict rules are set to loosen if states relax border controls with Qantas confirming Tuesday it could restart 40-50% of its domestic capacity by July.
For now, there’s a strict process to travel across state borders and Luxton, like so many other Aussies, needed to see family.
“I had applied for a QLD border pass for compassionate reasons around three days before,” Luxton told HuffPost Australia.
“My mum had been in hospital. I hadn’t seen her in six months due to work commitments and the subsequent lockdown associated with COVID, so I felt the need to get back to Brisbane and help her out while she wasn’t able to walk.”
The flight, which Luxton booked through Flight Centre, was expectedly different from the usual SYD-BNE route.
“A lot of the lights (in Sydney airport) were off. There was one Qantas staff member in the terminal and I was the only person at check-in while I dropped my bags,” he said.
“On entering the aircraft, we had to complete a document which essentially asked if we were Queenslanders returning home or an exempt individual. I was an exempt entrant due to my approved compassionate border pass.”
If the AFP decides a traveller’s reason for entering QLD is not acceptable, people must self-isolate at their own expense before catching the next flight home.
“The aircraft I flew on was wide-bodied and not at all like the standard domestic City Flyer planes I was used to,” he said. “I sat in Business. Due to the layout of Business Class and the partitioning between each seat, the cabin was full. However, I was aware that economy had just one person in each row.”
Luxton confirmed there was a minimal in-flight service of water and a biscuit, “we wouldn’t see much of the cabin crew,” he said, due to strict social distancing, adding “the plane statistically would have been 30% full.”
But this strange way of flying between Australian states could soon be over.
Qantas To Bring Back Interstate Flights By June
On Tuesday, Qantas said it expects to offer low and flexible fares to stimulate travel demand as soon as states relax border controls but the airline added it won’t implement social distancing on-board like it has been during the two month lockdown period.
The airline will introduce measures from June 12 such as providing masks and cleaning wipes to ensure safe travel and give passengers peace of mind during the pandemic, but will not leave middle seats empty.
“Social distancing on an aircraft is impractical,” Qantas boss Alan Joyce told reporters.
“It only gives you 60 centimetres between passengers.”
He said to meet Australia’s standard for social distancing of 1.5 metres on the ground, an Airbus SE A320 operated by Jetstar could fill just 22 seats, rather than the normal 180.
“That means airfares are going to be eight to nine times more than they are today,” he said. “It economically will not be justified.”
Instead, Qantas will simplify catering, step up aircraft cleaning and ask passengers to limit movement around the cabin once seated.
Masks will not be mandatory but Qantas will recommend passengers wear them in the interest of everyone’s peace of mind, in a measure that is unlikely to be needed over the longer term, Qantas Medical Director Ian Hosegood said.
He said data showed the risk of catching coronavirus on a plane is extremely low and there are no documented cases of transmission, including on recent lengthy Qantas repatriation flights from London and Los Angeles that lacked social distancing.
Hosegood’s comments come as jet manufacturers and airlines launch an urgent initiative to convince nervous travellers that the air they breathe on planes is safe, believing this is critical to rebuilding the travel industry.
Qantas said 98% of its frequent flyers are planning trips for when restrictions are lifted and Joyce said domestic capacity would be ramped up accordingly from the current 5% of normal.
And What Of The Trans-Tasman Travel Bubble?
While interstate travel falls under stage two of the federal government’s Three Step plan to ease coronavirus restrictions, travel to New Zealand and the Pacific Islands is under stage three.
Dr Jeff Jarvis, Director of Monash University’s Graduate Tourism Program, said it is certainly on the cards.
“Travel bubbles are a hot topic globally, many destinations are currently considering them,” he said.
“Executed safely, travel between Australia and New Zealand would be a great way to boost both our tourism industries. There is also a great opportunity to include Pacific destinations such as Fiji, as tourism is a key economic pillar for them.”
Flight Centre boss Graham Turner predicts Australians could be allowed to travel within their own regions by the end of May, before being allowed to free movement interstate.
“It’s highly likely domestic travel restrictions will be lifted before international travel restrictions - and that the process is likely to be gradual,” Managing Director of Tourism Australia, Philippa Harrison, told HuffPost Australia.
“While people can’t travel right now, they can certainly plan for those holidays in Australia. When we see recovery start, we’ll strongly be encouraging Australians to holiday at home as soon as it is safe to do so.”
Additional reporting by Katherine Chatfield and Reuters.