Australian international border reopening: Qantas brings forward international flying to November

Qantas will restart its international flying a month earlier than expected after Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced on Friday Australia's international border would reopen in November.

Mr Morrison said the ban on international travel in place since March 20 last year would lift for states that had vaccinated 80 per cent of their adult population, which would start with NSW.

Australian citizens and permanent residents who are inoculated with a vaccine approved or recognised by the Therapeutic Goods Administration will be able to do seven days home quarantine, Mr Morrison said. Unvaccinated travellers will still need to complete 14 days in hotel quarantine.

Qantas had put flights to major overseas destinations on sale from December 18, but on Friday afternoon said it would bring that forward in light of the Prime Minister's announcement, with three weekly return flights from Sydney to London and Los Angeles from November 14.

"We'd already sold out some of our international flights for December and seen strong demand on flights to and from London and Los Angeles, so we're confident there will be a lot of interest in these earlier services," Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said.

A spokeswoman for Virgin Australia, which plans to start flights to Fiji just before Christmas, said the move to reopen the border was "an incredibly important step for the Australian community".

The only international services Qantas has operated during the pandemic have been government-funded repatriation flights, while foreign airlines such as Singapore, Emirates and Etihad have been operating under strict passenger caps in line with hotel quarantine capacity, limiting them to as few as 10 passengers on each flight.

There are more than 44,000 Australians registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as wanting to return home but have been unable to due to a limited number of seats available on commercial and repatriation flights.

International carriers have been holding off selling more tickets over the summer until it was clear what rules and passenger caps would be in place.

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Barry Abrams, executive director of the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia (BARA), which represents foreign carriers, welcomed Friday's announcement but said airlines still did not know what caps would be in place for travellers not eligible for home quarantine, and how passengers would be processed at the airport.

"The announcements today do not seek to resolve those critical issues that we need resolved so we can actually start putting passengers on those 6000 empty seats going into Sydney Airport every day," he said.

Margy Osmond, chief executive of industry lobby group the Tourism and Transport Forum, said at-home quarantine was positive for Australians returning from overseas but that isolation mandates needed to be dropped completely for tourist and business travellers to return.

"From an international visitor perspective... they're not coming here if they have to quarantine," she said.

The International Air Transport Association - the global airline body - echoed this, saying Australia should follow the US, Canada and European and lift quarantine requirements.

"Airlines will also need more details if this is to be operationalised in November," IATA Asia Pacific vice president Philip Goh said.

Qantas said its November flights could be moved forward or back depending on when the exact date for reopening the border is known. Qantas has consistently sold, and then been forced to cancel, tickets for international fights throughout the pandemic as new waves of COVID-19 pushed back border openings.

Qantas said other routes set to restart in December – including to Japan, Singapore, Canada and Fiji – could also restart earlier if other states agree to operate home quarantine and open their international border. All passengers need to be fully vaccinated and also return a negative PCR COVID-19 test 72 hours before their departure.

Mr Morrison said on Friday that the TGA intended to recognise Australians jabbed overseas with China's Sinovac or India's Covishield as being vaccinated for inbound travel. Travellers may also be able to use Rapid Antigen Tests in the future, Mr Morrison said.

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