4 Jun, 2021
Rex speeds up capital city attack on Qantas, Virgin
The Sydney Morning Herald

Rex Airlines plans to add four more jet aircraft to its fleet by September in a faster than anticipated ramp-up of its capital city challenge to Qantas and Virgin.

The country airline on Wednesday also called on its larger rivals to match its policy of giving full refunds to any passenger whose travel plans are disrupted by COVID-19 outbreaks, saying concerns about cancellations are holding back the tourism industry’s recovery.

“One of the problems we have at the moment is that people still don’t necessarily have confidence to travel because they may not necessarily get their money back if they can't travel,” Rex deputy chairman John Sharp said.

Rex stepped up its war of words with Qantas on Wednesday by publishing full-page newspaper advertisements highlighting complaints from customers on social media about obtaining refunds from the country’s biggest airline.

Mr Sharp said Rex had processed all eligible refund requests since April 1, and that Qantas’ approach was further hurting consumer confidence.

A Qantas spokeswoman said the airline already gave customers the choice of a refund for flights it cancels due to COVID-19 and would not respond to Rex’s “repeated attempts to drag Qantas into a public slanging match”. Qantas’ website says it currently takes around eight weeks to process refunds.

After servicing regional routes with turboprop aircraft for the past 20 years, Rex last year secured $150 million in private equity funding to lease six Boeing 737 jets and challenge Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin in the capital city market.

Mr Sharp said Rex was close to finalising leases on four more Boeing 737s to enter service within “the next couple of months”, boosting its jet fleet to 10 and enabling it to add more capital cities to its network likely starting with Brisbane.

Rex had intended to have 10 jets by the end of 2021 but Mr Sharp said it was taking delivery sooner based on the response to its services so far. “Load factors have been good, the take-up has been good and the feedback we’re getting is very positive and encouraging,” he said. “So we’re keen to get those aircraft into service and add further destinations to our network.”

Qantas boss Alan Joyce said in April that Rex had presided over “the worst launch of a new jet airline in Australia’s aviation history”, with some flights flying empty.

Mr Sharp said that while some flights had low passenger numbers, that was not unusual in the airline business and that passenger load had been “much better than I had envisaged”.

Rex launched flights between Sydney and Melbourne in March followed by services from Melbourne and Sydney to the Gold Coast, and between Melbourne to Adelaide. It is scheduled to commence Melbourne-Canberra flights on June 10, subject to Victoria’s COVID travel restrictions, after putting turboprops on Sydney-Canberra in April.

Qantas has said that it is on track to return to 95 per cent of its pre-COVID domestic capacity in the June quarter.

4 Jun, 2021
Vaccinated Australians could travel internationally within 6 weeks under a trial proposed by Greg Hunt, according to reports
Business Insider
  • Australians vaccinated against COVID-19 could be permitted to travel internationally as early as July, according to a proposal raised by Health Minister Greg Hunt, Guardian Australia reported.
  • Hunt is said to have told the Coalition party room that vaccinated travellers could be allowed to bypass 14 days of hotel quarantine, facing reduced restrictions instead.
  • The news comes more than a year after Australia closed its international border, and as the nation attempts to drive vaccine uptake within the community.

Australians vaccinated against COVID-19 could be permitted to leave and reenter the country as early as July, under a proposal Health Minister Greg Hunt reportedly raised before parliamentary allies.

Guardian Australia reports Hunt proposed the trial before the Coalition party room on Tuesday, saying the government is gaming out scenarios for how vaccine take-up could soften Australia’s hard border.

That early analysis suggests a vaccine passport-style arrangement could begin some six to eight weeks from now, according to The Guardian.

Australia slammed its international border shut in March 2020 in an attempt to limit the spread of COVID-19. Overseas travel has been banned since then, with very few exemptions, and those entering Australia must undergo two weeks of hotel quarantine.

The border closure has effectively cleaved families apart, leaving tens of thousands of Australians stranded overseas. It has also ravaged Australia’s tourism and higher education sectors, which turned to international visitors and students for much of their trade.

To date, New Zealand is the only country Australians can travel to without undergoing two weeks of hotel quarantine.

The 2021-2022 Federal Budget suggests the border will reopen in mid-2022 at the earliest, pending vaccination rates.

Proposals raised in the party room reportedly include allowing vaccinated travellers to leave quarantine once they have returned a negative COVID-19 test, instead of staying isolated for the full 14 days.

Beyond stimulating the tourism and aviation sectors, there is hope such an arrangement would reduce the vaccine hesitancy in some corners of the community, which, paradoxically, could keep Australia’s border closed even longer.

Even so, surveys taken before Victoria’s latest COVID-19 lockdown suggest large cohorts of the Australian population are comfortable keeping the border closed until at least mid-2022, even if full vaccination is reached by the end of 2021.

Speaking to reporters in May, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said vaccine passports would be the “next step” in Australia’s reopening to the world.

The Federal Government must “plan for when we reopen, but it’s not safe to do it yet,” he said at the time.

“And so we’ll keep planning and we’ll get those processes in place.”

31 May, 2021
Qantas may offer 1000 frequent flyer points for COVID-19 jabs
Financial Review

Billions of frequent flyer points along with travel vouchers and status credits could be rewarded to people who get COVID-19 jabs as Qantas pushes to get Australians vaccinated as quickly as possible.

As states once again shut their borders to Victoria following a fourth statewide lockdown, Qantas and Jetstar are looking at options to boost vaccine uptake to get borders reopened permanently.

“As a large company that relies on travel to put our people and planes back to work, we’re obviously motivated to help with the national vaccine effort,” Qantas chief customer officer Stephanie Tully said.

“Qantas is a big supporter of Australia’s vaccine rollout because of what it means for public health, but also because it’s the key to keeping our domestic borders open and safely restarting international travel as well.”

Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly on Monday said a range of vaccine incentives were “on the table” and behavioural economists floated a range of ideas to boost uptake.

“I think we really do need to look for incentives, as many incentives as we can, for people to become vaccinated,” Professor Kelly said.

Incentives adopted around the world include vaccine lotteries, product discounts, free burgers and beers and more traditional behaviour economics “nudges” such as text and environment-prompted messages.

A poll last week suggested 30 per cent of Australians would shun the jab, with 15 per cent of adults surveyed reporting they were “not at all likely” to be vaccinated. Another 14 per cent reported being “not very likely”.

It is understood the options being considered by Qantas include giving people who get both their two COVID-19 jabs up to 1000 frequent flyer points, flight vouchers towards domestic and international flights, and status credits, which allow people to move into high Frequent Flyer tiers.

Any reward would be available to people who had already received their jabs and the program would run until the end of 2021 when the vaccine rollout is due to be completed; the details are yet to be completed.

“There are already a lot of good reasons to get a vaccine as soon as you’re able to, and we’d be happy to add another one to the list. Hopefully, other companies are looking at incentive options as well,” Ms Tully said.

“Every time a state border has reopened and when the bubble with New Zealand started, we’ve seen a big spike in people wanting to fly. The demand for domestic travel has been really strong.”

Sydney Airport chief executive Geoff Culbert last week backed calls to speed up Australia’s slower-than-expected vaccination programs, and said companies and the community need to help make it happen.

“Everyone, not just the government, has a role to play here,” Mr Culbert said. “Whatever tools and levers we have, we should be deploying.”

Sydney Airport has its own vaccination centre, which was initially set up to vaccinate workers interacting with travellers arriving from overseas.

The centre has also offered vaccinations to all airport employees and their families and is in talks with NSW Health over expanding the facility further and becoming a vaccination hub for the local community.

Behaviour economists said a fixed date for opening the border would be more effective at boosting vaccine uptake than a target based on the number of people vaccinated.

17 May, 2021
WA cave with the wow factor
WA cave with the wow factor

If you’ve seen the latest Tourism Australia campaign advertisement featuring Hamish Blake and Zoe Foster Blake, you may be wondering about that astonishing cave that finally silences their “big” exhortations. The landmark that causes their hushed awe is Cathedral Gorge in Purnululu National Park in the Bungle Bungle Ranges, Western Australia.

This extraordinary place, with its instantly recognisable beehive-shaped mounds, was formed over hundreds of millions of years, with tumultuous rains carving out deep gorges. To reach the cavern, visitors walk about 2km from Piccaninny carpark, hemmed in by gorge walls, until the trail enters a huge amphitheatre of red rock, a tranquil pool at its heart. There’s evidence of 20,000 years of Indigenous habitation in the region. The Gija and Jaru people are the traditional custodians of the park, and they conduct cultural tours.

Helicopter is the only way to access Cathedral Gorge in the wet season. Even during the dry, when roads across the arid savanna are more manageable, getting to Purnululu takes some effort; it’s about 12 hours’ drive from Darwin, nine hours from Broome, or 3 ½ hours south from Kununurra. The last 50km takes two to three hours and is 4WD only.

The new TA campaign urges Australians to embark on an epic trip across the country. Cathedral Gorge sounds like a perfect match.

17 May, 2021
Medicos want border reopening plan
Jane Halton & Nick Coatsworth

A growing chorus of medical experts, including advisers to federal and state governments, are pressing for a national plan to gradually reopen the international border and adjust quarantine for returned travellers as vaccines are deployed.

Amid frustration from government MPs about the prospect of border closures until mid-2022, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Sunday Australians who were vaccinated would be allowed to travel, first, domestically and eventually overseas.

Jane Halton says it would be prudent to start thinking about opening once the vaccine is rolled out to 70 to 90 per cent of the population.

Mr Morrison declined to put a timeline on the international border reopening to “green” countries, beyond saying it would be “many months” away.

Government adviser on vaccines and hotel quarantine, Jane Halton said the government should now be “scenario planning” to avoid a delay in reopening once the vaccine is rolled out to 70 to 90 per cent of the population.

“It would be prudent to start thinking about scenarios that are able to protect the country while the vaccine is rolled out, in order to ensure we can continue to grow the economy,” Ms Halton said.

“That could include additional quarantine facilities.”

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Sunday the government looked favourably upon plans being developed by NSW and South Australia to bring in more foreign university students, “over and above” the existing caps for Australians returning home.

“They have to be ticked off by the chief medical officer,” Mr Frydenberg said.

University of Melbourne professorial fellow in epidemiology Tony Blakely said the government in the second half of this year could safely open up travel with a small number of low-virus jurisdictions such as China and Taiwan.

“There’s really no reason why we can’t be taking in Chinese students in modified quarantine set up by universities, perhaps for seven days if they clear a test on day five,” Professor Blakely said.

“Epidemiologically, they’d present lower risk to our community than someone coming out of hotel quarantine where they can pick it up in the hotel.”

Barring a new extreme virus variant, Professor Blakely said he hoped borders would be relatively open in 12 months without quarantine from most countries, except high-case nations.

Before then, children needed to be vaccinated, he said.

“If we open up before then it would be pretty ugly because even if kids don’t get seriously ill, they are like a horizontal transmission between all the families.”

“There will be a point some time next year where we pivot and let more people come in more freely and we accept the virus is going to get in.”

“There will be pockets of infection and there will be more morbidity and mortality, but at some time we do need to open up.”

Professor Blakely last year provided modelling to the Victorian government to inform its second lockdown decision.

Former deputy chief medical officer Nick Coatsworth and Victorian chief health officer Brett Sutton both said Australia would need to reopen to the world once most Australians were vaccinated.

Once the population is sufficiently vaccinated we should be opening our borders for those who are vaccinated in a staged and gradual process.

Professor Sutton reportedly said that Australia would ultimately need to “make a call on letting it run”.

Deakin University chair in epidemiology Catherine Bennett said the border closure had “bought time” to build resilience and deploy a vaccine, but Australia needed an “end point”.

A plan to reopen borders would also encourage Australians to get vaccinated, she said.

“We need a much clearer road map out by measuring and managing risk,” Professor Bennett said.

Nick Coatsworth says community needs to get used to the idea we will need to open our international borders. Alex Ellinghausen

“That’s quarantine facilities, home quarantine, it’s duration of quarantine and triaging risk to manage the border.”

The federal government’s strategy is to open the borders in increments, based on health advice.

Mr Morrison said the pandemic response needed to be handled in a series of small steps.

“The next step is to be able to enable Australians who have been vaccinated to firstly travel around Australia” he said.

Mr Morrison said the second step was to allow vaccinated Australians to travel to so-called green countries that have low rates of infection.

He said allowing people to travel to “red zones” – such as India at present – would not only be dangerous but it would complicate efforts to try and get people out of those countries.

Mr Morrison said even if the vaccine program had been rolled out by the end of this year, there would still be millions of children unvaccinated and some unprotected adults who chose not be vaccinated.

There could also be new strains of the virus, he said.

The Liberal MP for the Sydney inner western seat of Reid, Fiona Martin, said her constituents were finding the border closure very difficult.

“Many are separated from immediate family members,” Dr Martin said. “The vaccine rollout is critical.

“Once the population is sufficiently vaccinated we should be opening our borders for those who are vaccinated in a staged and gradual process.”

Other Liberal MPs including Tim Wilson, Dave Sharma, Jason Falinski and Katie Allen pushed for border reopenings in comments reported by Nine newspaper, Sydney’s Sun-Herald, on Sunday.

Dr Coatsworth wrote in The Sydney Morning Herald: “Our entire profession needs to help our community get used to the idea that we will need to open our international borders, and that quarantine must inevitably be modified for vaccinated Australians returning home.”

“It is clear we will not have our borders closed indefinitely, we will not have quarantine stations in perpetuity while we aim for the false idol of eradication, and we need to come to terms with the idea that we cannot, nor do we need to, ride this one out in an eliminationist bunker.

“At a point in the future when a significant majority of our community is vaccinated, there will be pressure to open our borders.

“We must not resist that, in fact, when the time is right, we should be leading the calls for it.”

In private remarks to healthcare workers, reported by The Age, Professor Sutton said that Australia would ultimately need to “make a call on letting it run” once vaccinations have been widely offered.

“We need to somehow communicate to the public that we’ve gotten to a place of complacency because we’ve driven transmission to zero but we will face newly emerging transmission, and a critical juncture where we need to make a call on letting it run,” he said.

“I think that’ll be when we’ve got as high vaccination coverage for the adult population as we can possibly get to, so everyone being offered it, and building that confidence in vaccines as much as we can ... then we need to really say, ‘Look, we can’t sit on our hands here.’

“We all need to step up to get vaccinated in order to open up Australia to world travel and arrivals so that our education sector, tourism sector and all of the other kinds of compassionate reasons for us to see family and friends overseas can come to the fore.”

NSW Treasurer Dominic Perrottet said last week Australia must set a deadline for reopening its international border, to avoid the country being “left behind” by the rest of the world.

14 May, 2021
Australian Cruise industry wants engagement and hope from government
Cruise ship

In March last year, a $5bn a year industry supporting more than 18,000 jobs came to a shuddering halt in Australia. Now, more than a year later, it is still waiting for a pathway to resume its contribution to the travel and tourism economy.

It is increasingly apparent that travel and tourism are being left behind when it comes to the nation’s economic revival. The federal budget assumption that international borders will remain closed until at least mid-2022 is a devastating blow for a beleaguered sector.

It also appears that our sector, cruising, has been pushed further to the back of the queue. We’re unable to get the government to agree on a way forward to the careful restart of domestic cruising; for Australian guests only, and in a local cruise bubble.

Passengers want cruise ships to return. So do suppliers such as farmers, travel agents and entertainers. Regional destinations ships back. We all need a plan and an end to uncertainty. The Tourism and Transport Forum had made a similar call for a plan to address international border closures, only to be bitterly disappointed by the assumptions underpinning the budget.

TTF chief executive Margy Osmond could just as easily have been speaking of cruising when, before the budget, she called out the lack of a plan for reviving the tourism economy. And she now warns it could now be a case of survival for tourism, not merely revival. The lack of certainty, she says, is “devastating”.

“We understand health must be the number one priority. But we need some certainty around dates as far as possible.”

Similarly, without a pathway, there can be no confidence around when cruising will return, irrespective of how many Australians are ultimately vaccinated.

The thousands of Australians with a passion for cruising are entitled to ask why it is taking so long for state and federal authorities to work with the industry to establish such a pathway.

There is ample evidence that domestic cruises, carrying only Australian passengers, with crew who have each passed an extensive quarantine requirement and multiple tests, can responsibly resume, based on the strictest protocols and procedures.

As cruising’s peak industry body, Cruise Lines International Association Australasia (CLIA), is pressing the federal government to finalise the framework for a restart. At the same time, cruise loyalists are increasingly asking why they cannot resume sailing in an Australian cruise bubble.

But it seems not all travel bubbles are equal. Let’s be clear. The cruise industry is not looking for special treatment. Far from it. Our industry just wants to be subject to the same criteria that apply to other industries like aviation. Certainty is essential. Without it, cruise lines cannot finalise operational plans with the states and territories for their ships and crew to re-enter Australia, which in itself is a massively complex undertaking.

With no pathway, the only existing landmark — the biosecurity determination currently set at June 17 — holds only the promise of a further extension, with no viable plan for a domestic cruise bubble. It is just a recipe for further uncertainty. It is reasonable to expect a framework to be finalised before June 17 rolls around.

That the government would be seeking advice on the biosecurity determination date from the same health authorities involved in agreeing the framework for the resumption of domestic cruising also makes the expectation seem entirely reasonable.

CLIA, along with its cruise line members and the Australian Cruise Association, supported by external medical experts, has submitted detailed proposals to state and federal governments on how we believe domestic cruising can resume in Australia. This has included discussions at all levels of government, as well as presentations to the department of health’s Communicable Diseases Network Australia and the Australian Health Protection Plan Committee, which is comprised essentially of federal and state chief medical officers. An industry working group regularly meets with the federal government but we are still no closer to a pathway.

The health and safety of cruise passengers, crew and the destinations they visit are a top priority for CLIA members. Following collaboration with expert health advisers, CLIA’s COVID-19 member policy sets a high bar for initial resumption. We have brought this framework to the table, but still no progress has been achieved.

The policy is a comprehensive prevention, detection and response strategy, from the time a cruise is booked right through to disembarkation. Its core principles involve health protocols, strict measures to allow a carefully phased resumption, domestic cruising only for locals while borders are closed, 100 per cent testing of all passengers and crew before boarding and mandatory testing and quarantine for all crew.

Cruise ships have gradually resumed operating in other parts of the world using protocols like these. Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and parts of Europe have all resumed cruises in tightly controlled circumstances. The UK, Greece, Israel and the Caribbean will soon follow. As of April, more than 400,000 cruise passengers have sailed successfully on more than 400 cruises since July 2020. These sailings have successfully shown the risk of COVID-19 can be mitigated when the right protocols are followed rigorously.

Any crew members entering Australia would be subject to a period of quarantine before leaving originating ports, then a further two- to three-week quarantine at sea en route to Australia, and a further period of quarantine at their entry port in Australia. These exceed the quarantine requirements for airline arrivals.

We understand why federal and state governments and their chief medical officers are risk-averse when it comes to cruises resuming. Their caution is based on Australia’s relative success in keeping the worst effects of the pandemic at bay.

But all that the cruise industry is asking for is for the same leaders and advisers to agree a framework for cruising to resume. To begin with these cruises would limited to Australian residents and have domestic itineraries. We want an opportunity to demonstrate that an Australian cruise bubble can operate responsibly using strict guidelines.

There remains a surprisingly high level of optimism about cruising. Australians are still booking cruises. Every day, they let cruise lines know that they want to cruise again. Many are very close to demanding why their governments are so reluctant to, at the very least, to talk meaningfully about how cruising can return. We need a plan.


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