Air travel and COVID-19: Qantas prepares A330 planes for Sydney's international border reopening

Qantas engineers are preparing for the airline's fleet to ramp up international flying starting November 1, when Sydney opens to fully vaccinated citizens and permanent residents without quarantine.

With the exception of its Airbus SE A380 super-jumbos, which remain stored in the Mojave Desert in California, most of Qantas' international fleet has already been doing some limited flying on cargo and repatriation flights.

"What we do is have them on a bit of a part-time schedule so they have been doing one day a week rather than seven days a week," said John Walker, the airline's head of line maintenance.

Australia applied strict border rules in March 2020 that stopped citizens from exiting without special permission and required two weeks of hotel quarantine for all arrivals, leading Qantas to stop regular international passenger flights.

Qantas engineering staff at Sydney Airport on Thursday were checking brakes and tyres and catching up on some minor maintenance work on its fleet of A330 planes that were flying on lighter schedules.

"For this aircraft, if it were in a deep sleep, it would be over 1,000 man hours with full crews of 12 or 15 to wake the plane up," Walker said. "We started doing these wake-ups many, many months ago."

In California, Qantas has a team of engineers in Los Angeles that regularly drives two hours to the Mojave Desert to carry out checks on the A380 fleet, he said.

The desert environment there is drier than Alice Springs in central Australia, where other carriers including Singapore Airlines and Hong Kong's Cathay Pacific have stored planes, he added.

Qantas expects five of its 12 A380s to return to service from July 2022 for London and Los Angeles flights, while two are being retired.


London and Los Angeles are also the first destinations for flights from Sydney on November 1. Six weeks later it will start flights to Vancouver, Singapore Fiji and Japan.

It marks a major milestone for an airline that has done little international flying since March 2020 and has lost $20 billion of revenue due to the pandemic.

"We are now seeing light at the end of the tunnel," Qantas Chief Executive Alan Joyce said at an industry conference on Thursday. "We see there is huge interest in people planning their trips for next year." 

The airline expects to get back to flying 100 per cent of its pre-COVID-19 domestic capacity by January as state borders open up due to surging vaccination rates, the airline's chief executive said.

"It looks like by Christmas we will have every state open except for Western Australia, and Western Australia will open up domestically hopefully early in the new year, we assume around February," Qantas CEO Alan Joyce said at an industry conference held by Flight Centre.

Travel restrictions between Sydney and Melbourne, Australia's largest cities, eased on Wednesday as Victoria opened its borders to fully vaccinated residents from New South Wales amid a rapid rise in immunisation levels.

With cases trending lower in New South Wales, including Sydney, residents will be allowed quarantine-free entry into Victoria for the first time in more than three months. Travellers from Melbourne who wish to enter Sydney, however, must undergo a two-week home quarantine.

Joyce said Qantas had just one daily flight from Sydney to Melbourne at present, down from 55 before the pandemic when it was one of the world's busiest domestic routes.

"We will progressively in the first week of November go back to nearly 15 flights a day and by Christmas get back to closer to 30 to 40 flights per day and in the new year, February, when business comes back, pretty close to the pre-COVID schedule," he said.

The airline will resume international passenger flights from Sydney to London and Los Angeles on November 1 after New South Wales last week said it would permit the entry of fully vaccinated travellers without the need for quarantine, though only citizens and permanent residents will be allowed back in.