How Asia Pacific airlines are handling coronavirus travel restrictions

The Australian government has announced in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak that travel restrictions for Australians have been raised to a level 4 where all Australians, regardless of destination, age, or health, have been ordered to not travel overseas. 

“This our highest travel advice setting – Level 4 of 4,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday.

“The decision reflects the gravity of the international situation arising from the COVID-19 outbreak, the risks to health and the high likelihood of major travel disruptions.

“We also now advise Australians who are overseas who wish to return to Australia, to do so as soon as possible by commercial means. Commercial options may quickly become limited.”

All international travellers, including Australian citizens and residents, arriving in Australia will be required to self-isolate for 14 days.

Foreign cruise ships have also been banned from arriving at Australian ports for an initial 30 days. 

“Based on the advice of the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee (AHPPC), the National Cabinet agreed that our core objective now is to slow the outbreak of COVID-19 in Australia by taking additional steps to reduce community transmission,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Sunday.

The movements follow in the footsteps of countries such as New Zealand, which has also imposed the need for all travellers, including New Zealand citizens and residents, entering the country to self-isolate for 14 days over the weekend.

Meanwhile, travellers entering Singapore with a recent travel history to any ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) countries, Japan, Switzerland, or the UK within the last 14 days will be issued with a 14-day stay-home notice. 

So, what does this mean for travellers and airlines? Below is a list of airlines that operate within the Asia Pacific and details about what they’re doing.

Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand announced on Monday it has entered into a trading halt to “allow it time to more fully assess the operational and financial impacts of global travel restrictions”.

The company said it will reduce the capacity of its long haul network by 85% over the coming months to allow Kiwis to return home and to keep trade corridors with Asia and North America open, with domestic network capacity to be reduced by around 30% in April and May. No routes will be suspended, however. 

As a result, Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran said the company would continue to review its cost base and need to start the process of redundancies for permanent positions.

“We are now accepting that for the coming months at least Air New Zealand will be a smaller airline requiring fewer resources, including people. We have deployed a range of measures, such as leave without pay and asking those with excess leave to take it, but these only go so far. We are working on redeployment opportunities for some of our staff within the airline and also to support other organisations,” he said.

The Kiwi airline also announced that customers with international flights affected by COVID-19 government-imposed restrictions that are due to depart up until March 31 will be eligible to receive a refund, hold the value of their fare in credit for 12 months from the time of ticket purchase; or amend the date of their flight without change fees but be charged a price difference between the new and old fare. 

Qantas

Similarly, Qantas also has plans to cut international flights. In an update on Tuesday morning, the company said it will cut its total group international capacity by around 90%, until at least the end of May.

The airline added domestically, Qantas and Jetstar capacity reductions will be 60% until the end of May. In total, this is the equivalent of grounding 150 Qantas and Jetstar aircraft across the international and domestic network. 

As a result of these significant cuts, Qantas has announced it will stand down the majority of its 30,000 employees until at least the end of May 2020.

“The reality is we’ll have 150 aircraft on the ground and sadly there’s no work for most of our people. Rather than lose these highly skilled employees who we’ll need when this crisis passes, we are instead standing down two-thirds of our 30,000 employees until at least the end of May,” Qantas Group CEO Alan Joyce said.

“Most of our people will be using various types of paid leave during this time, and we’ll have a number of support options in place. We’re also talking to our partners like Woolworths about temporary job opportunities for our people.

“This is a very hard set of circumstances for our people, as it is for lots of parts of the community right now.”

In response to imposed travel restrictions, Qantas is, until May 31, offering customers with existing bookings on domestic or international Qantas, QantasLink, and Jetstar the option to cancel their flight in exchange for a travel credit voucher. 

Qantas customers can redeem the travel vouchers up to 12 months from the original booking, while Jetstar customers can redeem within six months of issues for travel and within 12 months of the new booking date. Qantas and Jetstar will waive the change fee when customers rebook.

Virgin Australia

In the latest update on Wednesday, Virgin Australia has announced it is making further capacity reductions to its fleet in response to COVID-19. 

The company will now extend its domestic capacity reduction from 50% to 90%, including the suspension of all Tigerair Australia domestic services effective immediately until at least mid-June. 

This is in addition to the group’s decision last week to suspend all international flights from March 30 to June 14.

The temporary grounding would be equivalent to 125 aircraft from the group’s fleet, Virgin Australia said.

As a result, the company said it will temporarily stand down approximately 8,000 of the company’s 10,000-person workforce until at least the end of May, noting it is working with “more than 25 partners to identify short and long-term redeployment options”. 

“We are now facing what will be the largest grounding of aircraft in the country’s history … We plan to return Tigerair Australia and Virgin Australia to the skies as soon as it is visible to do so, however I am mindful that how we operate today may look different when we get to the other side of this crisis,” the company CEO and managing director Paul Scurrah said. 

As a result, Virgin Group said it will suspend its earnings guidance for FY20.

For customers wishing to change their travel due to COVID-19, Virgin Australia is offering Virgin and Tigaerair guests with new and existing domestic and international bookings to June 30 the option to change their flight to a later date, as well as the option to pick a different destination, without incurring any change fees. 

Virgin Australia and Tigerair guests can also cancel their domestic or international travel without incurring a fee and receive the full value of their booking in the form of a travel voucher, valid for 12 months. 

The company also noted it will also directly contact guests with any changes to their bookings and offer alternative travel arrangements, including refunds for any routes that the group is no longer servicing.

Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines (SIA) said as it continues to review its waiver policy, customers have the option to cancel their existing flight itineraries for travel up to May 31 and receive a travel voucher to rebook travel at a later date based on a new flight itinerary that the airline will release by 31 March 2021. All rebooking fees for tickets issued on or before March 15 for travel up to May 31 will be waived, although the cost of any fare difference will be applied.  

All new SIA and SilkAir tickets issued from now to March 31, SIA will also waive change fees.

“SIA will continue to review its waiver policy and retains the flexibility to extend the cut-off date of 31 May 2020 as it assesses the impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on global air travel in the coming weeks,” the company wrote.

The airline said due to travel restrictions, it will operate only 50% of its total capacity that had been originally scheduled for up until the end of April.  

Emirates

According to Emirates, passengers who have made bookings on or before March 31 have the option to adjust travel dates free of charge, but will have to pay any fare difference between the new and old ticket.  

“With the current developing conditions around the globe, we understand that your travel plans might change. So we’re giving you the flexibility to reschedule your trip with no change fees,” Emirates said in a statement.

In its latest update, the airline said it will temporarily suspend most passenger flights by 25 March. 

“As a global network airline, we find ourselves in a situation where we cannot viably operate passenger services until countries re-open their borders, and travel confidence returns. By Wednesday, March 25, although we will still operate cargo flights which remain busy, Emirates will have temporarily suspended most of its passenger operations. We continue to watch the situation closely, and as soon as things allow, we will reinstate our services,” Emirates Group CEO Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum said. 

Etihad Airways

Etihad Airways said it is giving travellers “peace of mind” by allowing one complimentary date or destination change for all flights booked between March 8 and April 7 which will be valid for all fares including guest redemptions and Etihad holiday bookings. Any fare difference as a result of rebooking or rerouting will be applied.

AirAsia 

AirAsia is giving passengers who are unable to travel due to respective travel bans as a result of COVID-19 the option to move their flight to a new date on the same route within 90 calendar days from the original flight time without an additional cost or a credit voucher, which can be redeemed within 12 months from the issuance date. The options are being offered to passengers who have flights tickets prior to March 7, for flight departure until April 30.

“AirAsia assures that the safety and wellbeing of our guests and Allstars is our top priority. AirAsia is complying with advice and regulations from the local government, civil aviation authorities, global and local health agencies, including the World Health Organisation,” the company said.

“AirAsia is closely monitoring the public health situation and reserves the right to announce further policies according to the latest developments.”

See also: How North American airlines are responding to COVID-19 travel bans

Qatar Airways

Qatar Airways has launched “maximum flexibility” policy to enable passengers that have booked for travel up to June 30 the option to change their travel free of charge, or exchange their ticket for a travel voucher valid for one year. Affected passengers can also request a full refund without charge.

“Although we maintain the very highest standards of hygiene across all parts of the business, we recognise that some passengers may wish to alter their existing travel plans. We hope this new policy, alongside our robust hygiene practices and safety record, will allow our passengers to travel with confidence,” Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Bakar said.

Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific is giving passengers the chance to receive a refund for their ticket free of charge for countries that have imposed major travel restrictions. These countries include Australia, Belgium, Cambodia, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mainland China, Nepal, Netherlands, New Zealand, Philippines, South Korea, Spain, Switzerland, Thailand, Taiwan, and Vietnam. These new conditions apply to tickets that are marked with last travel dates of up to 30 April.

Alternatively, passengers can rebook or reroute their ticket for travel on or before 10 December. 

The announcement comes a week after chairman Patrick Healey said the company expects the first half of 2020 to be “extremely challenging financially”. 

“It is difficult to predict when these conditions will improve. Travel demand has dropped substantially and we have taken a series of short term measures in response. These have included a sharp reduction of capacity in our passenger network. Despite these measures we expect to incur a substantial loss for the first half of 2020,” he said.

“We expect our passenger business to be under severe pressure this year and that our cargo business will continue to face headwinds.”

Japan Airlines

In a company update made last Friday, Japan Airlines said as a result of a decrease in travel demand and implementation of travel restrictions, it will reduce, suspend, or change several flights across its network that were due to fly up until March 28.

The company said it will waive any fees associated with cancellations and data changes for travel departing up to April 5. For routes travelling to and from China, the waived fees are extended until 20 April.

At the time of writing, the novel coronavirus has infected over 153,000 globally, according to the World Health Organization, with 5,746 fatalities recorded thus far.

What governments are doing to help

In response to the sharp downturn the local aviation sector has been experiencing due to COVID-19, the Australian government has announced that it will provide the local aviation sector with a relief package that’s valued at approximately AU$715 million. 

It will include an upfront estimated benefit of AU$159 million to airlines for reimbursement of applicable charges paid by domestic airlines since February 1, as well as refunding and provide ongoing waiving of a range of government charges, including aviation fuel excise, airservices charges on domestic airline operation, and domestic and regional aviation security charges.

“Our airlines run on tight budgets at the best of times and these past few weeks have been particularly tough,” Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack said in a statement on Wednesday.

“I’ve been speaking with Australian airline executives every day and will continue to work with them to make sure they receive the support they need. Providing this assistance not only helps our airlines but also the entire aviation industry, regional Australians in particular, and other industries such as tourism and trade, which depend on aviation.” 

Updated 18 March 2020, 9:26 am (AEDT): Additional information from Qantas, Virgin Australia, Qatar Airways, and Cathay Pacific about compensation for customers and impact on business have been included.

Updated 18 March 2020, 11:38 am (AEDT): Updated travel information that was announced by the Australian government and added details about Australia’s governments relief package for the aviation sector has been included.

Updated 19 March 2020, 9:35 am (AEDT): Updated information about Qantas’ workforce has been included.

Updated 23 March 2020, 4:53 pm (AEDT): Updated information about Emirates and Singapore Airlines’ fleet has been included.  

Updated 25 March 2020, 8:59 am (AEDT): Updated information from Virgin Australia about its fleet and workforce has been included.

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