Travel lovers everywhere are wanting to know, when can we fly round the planet again, the way it used to be. Will it be a hassle? What must we be prepared for?
Award-winning aviation journalist Geoffrey Thomas has many of the answers.
Geoffrey, the aviation editor of The West Australian and editor-in-chief of AirlineRatings.Com knows more about planes, airports and travel than virtually anyone on earth. He chats to The Starfish:
On a scale of one to ten, what’s the health of the Australian aviation industry at the moment?
It’s probably about a two. But slowly increasing. Qantas is in good shape; though it certainly has been battered, and so has Virgin, though it’s under new management now with Bain Capital. So yeah, it’s probably a two to three. Though compared to the rest of the world, we’re probably better off than many airlines.
Why is that?
Firstly, Qantas has been a very well run airline, from a balance sheet point of view. They’re very conservative, so they’ve got quite a number of assets they’ve been able to sell off and lease back aircraft. And they sold some property, things like that. It’s a very well run organisation From that point of view they’re much better off than most. They’ve also got an investment -grade rating which they’ve retained. Only about four airlines in the world have an investment-grade rating. So they’re in pretty good shape.
For the traveller, has anything good come out of the whole Covid setback?
Really there’s nothing. Travel has been severely knocked around. Airlines are a little bit leaner than they were. Some people would say that’s a good thing, others would say that’s a bad thing. Some of the frills have gone. You’d have to say, it’s been a very bad experience all round.
But what about prices, would they otherwise have been higher by now?
No. That’s a good point. The reality is, ever since the first person stepped on an aeroplane in 1919, prices have come down. You’ve had World War Two, SARS, the financial crisis, the Great Depression, all sorts of massive hits to the airline industry, and now Covid. Prices continue to go down because of the technology. Improvements in engine technology, air frame technology, aerodynamics, computerisation, has cut thousands and thousands of jobs out of the industry which were very costly. Going back 40 years, when you had an airline ticket, you had seven coupons in it. Those coupons went off to different departments. Everything was manual. Now it’s all computerised. It’s all done digitally. All done on your phone. It’s incredibly streamlined and they’re the things that drive prices down.
Airlines have had to offer free cancellation policies; could that perhaps continue?
That may be a good thing that’s come out of Covid, because airlines will have streamlined and made simple their cancellation policies. It’s yet to be seen whether the concessions that have been granted, stay as travel returns. The same thing’s happened in the cruise industry too. All sorts of penalties and cut-offs have been been relaxed dramatically to give people flexibility of cancelling at the last minute.
Before Covid, if you cancelled six months before a cruise, you lost 50 per cent of the fare. Now you can cancel almost up to the day and you’ll get a full refund. Again, it remains to be seen as to whether those changes become permanent or whether they’ll change.
How are West Australian travellers going to be affected?
I think we’re going to see more regional routes. People have re-discovered Western Australia. Lots of people have Broome on their bucket list or Karijini or Exmouth or the whale sharks or the manta rays. They’ve got all these things on their bucket list; now they’re ticking them off.
And people are going to continue to tick them off, this year and into next. They’re going to be reluctant to travel overseas for some time.
Also people are saying, “hang on, Karijini’s stunning! I saw it last year, I’m gonna go again.” And “Broome is fabulous. I’m going to go again.” So people, are discovering, and re-discovering again and again, Western Australia.
Qantas has added about 50 new regional routes, mostly in the eastern states. With WA opening up, I think there will be a lot more regional routes, coming into Western Australia.
Traditionally those have been really expensive though. Have they had to drop those?
They’re trying to make them as cheap as possible. You’ve got the new Melbourne to Busselton service starting in early April, with some really good fares. But yes, compared to Bali it is more expensive. One of the reasons it’s more expensive is that our average weekly earnings is seven times higher than Indonesia’s. It’s the cost of labour.
Speaking of Bali, lots of West Australians are obviously keen to get back there. At the moment you still have to quarantine in Jakarta don’t you?
No, you can quarantine in Bali in a hotel for three days. These different measures in different parts of the world are being taken off fairly rapidly, as they realise that the Omicron, while more contagious, is not nearly as dangerous as Delta.
They’re pulling these restrictions off very quickly. All of a sudden tourism destinations are going to be in competition with each other as to who can open up first, they don’t want to miss out. They don’t want people going to Singapore when they could be going to Bali or whatever. So these restrictions are coming off fairly quickly.
So you think lots of people will be going back to Bali soon enough?
You bet they will.
No fear of Covid?
I don’t think so. I think as soon as they’re able to, they’ll go.
Do you think the demographic of travellers will change – there’ll be more young people the first to get on a planes and the older ones will more reticent?
Absolutely. The more adventurous, the ones who think they’re bullet-proof, yes they’ll jump on an aeroplane. One of the things we’ve found over the years is, when you have super-cheap airfares, it’s an amazing incentive to travel. I remember when SARS finished. The World Health Organisation pronounced SARS had finished, and Cathay Pacific put crazy fares into the marketplace and sold 50,000 fares in an hour. All of a sudden thousands of people said, “sure I’m worried about SARS, but that fare’s too good to miss, I’m going.” There’s a bit of cross-over between fear and bargain.
But how many hours are we going to have to wait at the airport now to travel internationally?
Yes, you’re going to have to add another hour at this stage. Until the systems become more seamless, before everybody becomes more familiar with what to do and how to do it and all those sorts of things.
What airports should do is they should be putting in express lanes. Pay five bucks and get straight through on an express lane. Someone’s not being entrepreneurial!
No and what about Rapid Antigen Tests? Will we have to travel with just a pile of RATs in our bag?
Yep. RATs are going to be the new currency; absolutely! You’ll have to take a couple of boxes of five with you. People need to put these words in their Google search engine: IATA, Covid, Travel, and Map.
That will take you to a map of the world, providing you with all the countries. You run your cursor over it. And a balloon opens up, outlining all the restrictions. And you have to acquaint yourself with all those restrictions.
Most airline websites have those details. But one of the things you’re going to have to do is, download a tracking app. In Singapore, you’re going to have to download a Singapore tracking app. So they can follow you. And other countries are the same. There’s a lot of messing around!
What the chances of catching Covid on the plane? Because in the early days of this pandemic, people were catching it from the person next to them.
That’s because they weren’t wearing masks. To start off with, they said masks aren’t necessary. Now they say yes, masks are necessary.
How safe is the air on the plane?
The air on an aeroplane, there’s a lot of misconceptions about this. It doesn’t travel from front to back. It travels from head to toe. It comes down over your head, and it’s then sucked through vents in the floor, the side of the aeroplane, and a quarter of it goes through a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Arrestance filter, which is what they use in hospital operating theatres. That’s mixed with 75 per cent of fresh air coming in from outside. Yes the air is thin up there, but it’s compressed. It’s mixed with the 25 per cent re-circulating. And then every three minutes, that process continues.
Has this system all been improved substantially since Covid began?
It was already there in the first place. They put the HEPA filters in aeroplanes because they found the two biggest contributors to jet lag were alcohol fumes and perfume or after-shave fumes. When we go on a trip, we douse ourself with perfume or after-shave to smell nice, we get on board and drink alcohol in great amounts.
So to avoid jet lag don’t sit next to a creep with lots of after-shave who’s getting drunk?
Exactly right. But these filters take all those particulates out, and, by the way, 99.99 per cent of all viruses. That’s why they had them in there in the first place; to make the air really nice and clean. That’s something that’s been introduced over the last ten years. So most aeroplanes have HEPA filters in them. The air’s way safer than being in a restaurant, bus, or a train, anything like that.
Since Putin invaded Ukraine, how has that added to the woes of the aviation industry?
When it comes to Ukraine and Russia, a couple of dynamics there. Number one, air routes over Russia: most airlines will not fly over Russia any more. And they certainly won’t fly over Ukraine. So for some airlines, that’s a major re-hashing of how they fly.
And it will extend air routes by sometimes a couple of hours, at least. It will create greater congestion over southern Europe as airlines avoid that air space. Hopefully that situation’s going to resolve itself sooner rather than later and things will get back to normal. Because Russia really likes the over-flies, because they get paid. When you fly over a country, you’ve got to pay that country for the over-fly right. And they want the US dollars, they get paid in US dollars. Which is why one of the most cooperative countries in the world when it comes to over-fly is Iran. They want the US dollars. If you ever go to Iran, it’s amazing, there are thousands and thousands of planes flying overhead every day, all coughing up US dollars into the Iranian coffers. That’s what they want. So does Russia. They want US dollars.
Now Geoffrey, how long since you’ve been overseas?
And have you got a trip planned?
Yes, I have. Paris at the end of this month.
What will be different? You’ll allow five hours at the airport?
I’ll allow three. So yes, I will be allowing more time and I’ll be very well-prepared. I don’t really want to go, I don’t like queues!
So really the worst worry now is the extra hassle?
Yes, it’s the hassle. You’ve got people who don’t know what they’re doing. You’ve got guards, security, who don’t know what they’re doing. That process can really get the blood boiling. And I don’t suffer fools!
In the past, pre-Covid, if you’d gone to Paris, would you have possibly gone to Italy or something too?
Oh yes, I’ll just go to Paris for the meeting I’m going to and then I’ll come straight home. That’s it. I won’t deviate at all.
Do you think people are going to change their overseas travelling habits?
Definitely. I think they’ll condense their trip, there’ll be less side trips. People will decide to go to England, for example, but not bother about the Paris or Dutch side trip. And they’ll stick to countries that they think are safer. Some will be thinking, “Yes I like the US/ UK medical system, if I get caught up with Covid. I want to be where I know the hospital system.” They’ll also factor in what their insurance is going to be, so that’s going to be a consideration too.
Travel insurance. Is that going to cost a lot more?
Yes, it will. But some airlines like Emirates were – I say were, because these things are changing all the time – including travel insurance with their ticket. So if you got Covid on the aeroplane with them, they’d look after you. This is one of these insurance policies where you’ve got to absolutely read the fine print and understand what you’re exactly for and not. Normally we don’t bother! Well, now more than ever, you need to know what you’re insured for.
Any advice here?
One of the best things to do is to get hold of a really good travel agent. If ever you should book with a travel agent, now’s the time. First of all they need the business. More importantly, if you’re in trouble, they can get you out of trouble, and that’s what you want.
Good advice, and finally, there’s been a bit of biffo between Qantas and Perth Airport. What’s it really about?
It’s a very complicated stoush. There are many factors to it.
But put simply, Perth Airport is owned by superannuation funds. They offered Qantas a deal, the best deal there. And 25 of the 26 airlines using Perth Airport accepted the deal they were offered, after negotiations. Qantas said no, we’re not paying that, we’ll pay you what we think you should be charging us, which was way lower. So after four months of arguing about it Perth Airport took Qantas to the WA Supreme Court in December 2018. That case has dragged on for three years and the judge handed down his decision , which basically was in favour of Perth Airport, saying he agreed with the margin the airport wanted to charge, that it’s fair and reasonable. And by the way along the way the Productivity Commission also said what Perth Airport was charging was fair and reasonable. So Qantas has now got to pay up. And this has been a line in the sand as to what is a fair and reasonable charge.
Geoffrey Thomas with two of his aviation books
When will travel as we knew it be back in full – with maximum number of passengers in the sky and maximum planes on the go?
In my view it will be 2025, when we’ll be back where we were in January 2020. When you could grab your passport and go anywhere in the world without any considerations.
Between now and 2025 , there are going to be places you can go without any considerations. Singapore. New Zealand. Fiji. One by one by one, countries will become freer and freer. But there will be pockets around the world where you simply don’t want to go, because the vaccination rate is so low, you just don’t want to go there! So travel will not be free to those countries.
For the majority of the countries where we will want to go, I would say by the end of this year, travel will pretty much free and easy by the end of 2022. But for the whole world? Probably 2025.
OK thank you very much Geoffrey Thomas. Guru!