Flying during the pandemic – An Australian experience

The COVID-19 pandemic has devastated the aviation industry worldwide. In Australia the two main airlines – Qantas and Virgin Australia – have come under immense financial pressure as a result of government health restrictions. The already struggling Virgin Airlines entered into voluntary administration soon after travel restrictions were imposed. Qantas has struggled to stay afloat and has reduced the number of flights and cut thousands of jobs to help relieve the financial strain. Despite these challenges, both airlines continue to operate in a limited capacity, and the travel industry is slowly starting to rebuild.

The ongoing uncertainty of local outbreaks and changing border closures makes planning travel challenging. For many Australians, interstate travel for business and leisure is becoming more viable. As of August 2020, most states have reopened to visitors from states other than Victoria and New South Wales, and the Northern Territory is also open to visitors from New South Wales and the ACT as long as they haven’t been in greater Sydney in the last 14 days.

From booking your flight to arriving at the terminal, to the inflight experience itself and arrival at your destination, the flying experience has changed dramatically in the COVID era. While parts of it can be challenging, we’ve found that you can have an incredibly rewarding and unique experience if you’re lucky enough to be able to travel right now, as long as you plan effectively. 

We flew from Sydney to Alice Springs and onward to Darwin in August 2020 and this article reflects our unique (though at times stressful) experience travelling interstate during Australia’s second wave of the pandemic. Just remember that the situation is changing constantly and you should keep up to date with relevant airline and government authorities to ensure a seamless experience.

Before you travel

The first step to travelling at this time, of course, is to decide where you want to go. Because of border closures, options can be limited. Check with the relevant government authorities to see if borders are open to travellers from your area and whether there are any conditions attached – 2 weeks in quarantine is certainly something to be avoided if you want an enjoyable vacation. The other thing to be aware of when it comes to booking your flights is that the network is currently just a skeleton of its pre-pandemic state.  In Australia, the second largest airline – Virgin Australia – has effectively collapsed and is running almost no flights to most destinations. Meanwhile Qantas is maintaining a basic national network, however you may have to be creative and stay overnight in cities and towns along the way.

In our experience flying Qantas from our hometown, our ultimate destination was to Darwin. Originally booked to go direct from our hometown to Sydney in one day, flight cancellations and border closures meant we were rerouted twice – ultimately having to stay overnight in both Sydney and Alice Springs. Additionally, because of the strict Northern Territory border restrictions against travellers from Sydney, we had to go directly to an airport hotel in Sydney and couldn’t leave the room until travelling directly to the airport the next day – even stopping at a convenience store along the way would have breached these requirements and prevented us from entering the Northern Territory.

At the terminal

Many check-in facilities are closed or open with limited functionality

The most striking feature when you arrive at the airport is the lack of passengers and staff. Airports are normally full of activity with frequent announcements, long check in lines and people rushing about. Nowadays, the mood is a lot more sombre. The once congested check in areas were virtually empty and well below their regular capacity. Around the terminal many of the shops and cafes have temporary closed due to the low passenger numbers. Despite the desolate environment, we found a hidden beauty in the emptiness, allowing us to appreciate the architecture and vast size of the airport which may have been previously overlooked in the chaos of trying to navigate to your gate. 

The social distancing arrangements in the terminal differed depending on the airport. In Sydney, check in was contactless using phone-based boarding passes and bag drop facilities, while in Alice Springs we still needed to use a staff-assisted check in counter. Security was more or less the same as always, although most staff were wearing masks, and the use of masks throughout the terminal – in Sydney at least – was very high.

In the lounge

Qantas reopened a number of their lounges in July 2020 with the expectation that flight capacity would continue to expand. The advent of the second Australian wave of COVID-19 has meant that major routes such as Sydney-Melbourne and Sydney-Brisbane have been effectively shut down, so the lounges that have reopened are incredibly quiet, even in peak times.

We arrived in the Sydney lounge at around 8am on a Friday – the more premium Business Lounge was the only one open, so we were directed there over the typical Qantas Club lounge. Despite it being peak hour (in normal times at least), the lounge was virtually empty with less than a dozen people occupying the COVID-adjusted 350-capacity space. What the lounge lacked in liveliness, however, it more than made up for in warmth and quality of service. Due to social distancing requirements, the hot food and extensive drinks menu was ordered on an a la carte basis and delivered to your table. The staff are also enthusiastic to serve you, and in the evening they’ll also happily prepare cocktails on demand!

On the plane

The boarding process hasn’t changed too much, with the exception of scanning your own boarding pass and being given a ‘Fly Well Pack’ which contains a facial mask and two sanitising wipes. While it’s not compulsory to wear a mask during the flight, passengers are strongly encouraged to do so and most follow this guidance, although this differed depending on the origin and destination of the flight. 

In economy class, the service is quite basic but reasonable given the circumstances. We were given the option of a hot or cold beverage and a small snack. Water was offered throughout the flight. As a cost saving measure, the in-flight entertainment system has been deactivated, however free Wi-Fi is available on most of the larger planes such as Boeing 737s. Due to low passenger numbers, most flights are not filled to capacity, allowing people to be spread out throughout the cabin. 

Arrival

Airports are one of the main ways that states are able to enforce their strict border arrangements, so it’s understandable that there’s a comprehensive process to screen arrivals.

In Sydney, we were greeted at the gate with police and NSW Health officials who checked our temperature, asked us to show ID, asked where we’ve been and where we’re going, and whether we’ve been in Victoria (the epicentre of Australia’s second COVID-19 wave) in the last 14 days. After clearing all checking stations, we were free to proceed to baggage claim and enter the city. For arrivals from Melbourne, passengers now disembark at the international terminal so that the 14-day hotel quarantine policy can be enforced.  

Sydney airport arrival
Regular reminders in Sydney about restrictions on Victorian travellers

Arriving into Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, on the other hand, was a little more relaxed although still very strictly enforced. The situation was a bit unusual because although arrivals from the flight’s origin city of Sydney were put into hotel quarantine for 14 days, people simply transiting through Sydney were exempt from this. We were directed to the “non-hotspot” line (we didn’t see anyone going to the “hotspot” line, so most people seemed to be coming from regional NSW), where we presented our ID and pre-prepared border form and signed a statutory declaration regarding where we’ve been. The whole process took just a couple of minutes, and with a sigh of relief we happily proceeded through the terminal to start our top-end holiday.

Finally arriving in Darwin, we expected to not face any border issues as we’d already entered the Northern Territory. However because the plane was originating from Adelaide with a stop in Alice Springs, the disembarking passengers were split between Territory residents (who didn’t get checked) and South Australian residents (who had to fill out a border form). Because we didn’t fit either category we were lumped in with the SA residents and forced to fill out another form for a very confused officer. It looks like some things are still a work in progress!

Qantas aircraft at Alice Springs
See if you can spot the Singapore Airlines, Cathay Pacific and Scoot planes in storage in the background!

Thanks for reading to the end of our article on flying during the pandemic. Remember to like the article and follow us. Also, comment down below – what are you looking forward to when you fly again? And if you’ve already started flying, what has been your experience?

One final note…

The global travel situation is constantly evolving throughout the COVID-19 crisis. Limited domestic travel options have reopened in Australia, and we’re excited to be embracing the opportunities this brings, but we’re also looking forward to travelling internationally again. We’re frequently researching the best options for travel once it’s safe again, so be sure to check out our articles on 5 places to travel to once borders reopen, and follow our blog and our social media accounts (TwitterInstagramFacebook) for the latest updates. Thanks for reading to the end, here’s to a Better Break soon!

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