200319 Qantas
Australia's recovery rates could give Qantas the confidence to get back to ultra long-haul services. The vaccine arrival could speed those decisions for the airline industry. Image Credit: Reuters

December 2 of 2020 saw a major milestone in the ever-unfolding global struggle against the coronavirus, with the UK Government officially approving the joint Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine for public roll-out.

This made the UK the first major Western nation to begin distributing a COVID-19 vaccine. As such, the government has made an order for 40 million doses of the US-German joint-venture’s vaccine, which would be sufficient for 20 million people given the double-dosage requirement of the jab.

However, a popular and successful uptake of the vaccination, which is reported to be 95 per cent effective against COVID-19, could see a rapid increase in additional orders, alongside the prospect of additional immunisations from the likes of Moderna (95 per cent), AstraZeneca (62-90 per cent) and Gamaleya (92 per cent).

With the first batch of doses set to arrive on UK soil in the coming days, the Pfizer-BioNTech jab is considered to be the fastest ever vaccine to go from concept to finished and distributed product.

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Australia is back

Simultaneously on the opposite side of the world, Australia has experienced a vastly different pandemic, with community transmission of the virus having been all but eradicated. Major cities like Melbourne and Sydney have passed more than a month without a community transmission of COVID-19, while secondary cities such as Perth are not reporting a local case of the virus since June. In turn, this has given the country the confidence to re-open all of its internal borders, with domestic travel efficiently scaling up, and looking well on its way to re-discover pre-pandemic levels.

In an apt reflection of this, along with the clear levels of pent up demand for air-travel among business and leisure demographics, Qantas and Virgin have looked to reinstate much of their former domestic networks, along with the ongoing establishment of an array of new point-to-point routes such as Perth-Hobart, Gold Coast-Canberra and Melbourne-Busselton.

In a further symbol of confidence, local airline Regional Express Airlines (REX) recently acquired 10 of Virgin Australia’s 737-800s, in a bid to diversify its regional offerings and enter the hotly contested primary-to-primary city markets, including the ‘golden triangle routes’ among Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne.

Chance for a long-haul?

With the respective contexts considered above, it is clear that the scope and foundation for an Ultra Long-Haul (ULH) air bubble between the UK and Australia has been laid. Indeed, governments and airline industry bodies alike have insisted that health factors must, and will continue to be, the most important priority in considering the reinstatement of international air-connectivity. Qantas CEO Alan Joyce himself stated just as much, suggesting that a proof of vaccination “for international visitors coming out and people leaving the country” would be “a necessity” for travellers “before they get on the aircraft”.

However, with a vaccine set to be widely distributed among the UK populace, the likes of Joyce will now be on the front-foot, pragmatically looking at the logistics of reinstating services between the UK and Australia. This intent would be built off the recognition of the clear pent-up demand for travel between the two major countries, ranging from nationals stuck overseas, to family members desperate to reunite with loved ones, and businesspeople who require in-person meetings where a Zoom call would not suffice.

Easy mobility

Fortunately for Joyce, the prospect of mobilising an UK-Australia air bubble could be a relatively efficient exercise. Qantas had successfully operated its direct, ultra long-haul service between Perth and London on their Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, and has run a range of repatriation flights to the UK capital over the course of the pandemic.

To this extent, up-scaling the QF9/10 route back into a regular service, even to a once-daily operation, would hold little fear for Qantas, with the airline having kept a sufficient number of Dreamliner aircraft out of storage.

Importantly, such ultra long-haul operations would afford a uniquely safe and healthy service, with the direct routes not requiring a stop-over in hub transit airports such as Dubai, Doha, Singapore, Hong Kong, etc., whilst also making use of the smaller, less-densely configured Boeing 787 aircraft.

Taps new realities

With the Qantas Dreamliner holding just 236 seats (Qantas’ A380 holds 484 passengers), each patron across each of the business, premium economy and economy classes is afforded greater space. In turn, such core features of ultra long-haul operations inherently synergise with the newfound requirements and customer preferences that have manifest from the implications of COVID-19.

Resultantly, the various pieces of the stakeholder puzzle now seem to align behind the instatement of a UK-Australian air-bubble, thereby affording these countries with an opportunity to become pioneers of post-pandemic travel. And giving its well-connected citizens a chance to re-unite in the knowledge that they are safe and coronavirus-free.

- Daniel Bloch is Principal at Bloch Aviation Advisory, while Linus Benjamin Bauer is Managing Director at Bauer Aviation Advisory.