Vaccine passport visa travel
(Photo by James D. Morgan/Getty Images)
  • Australian airline Qantas is looking to reopen its South African flight path on 31 October 2021.
  • This aligns with Australia’s date to have the majority of its population vaccinated against Covid-19.
  • To prepare for this, Qantas is developing a “digital health pass” which will work like a visa and require passengers to prove their vaccination status before being allowed into a country.
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Australia’s national flag carrier, Qantas Airways, plans to resume its flight path between Sydney and Johannesburg on 31 October 2021. The restart date coincides with the planned completion of Australia’s immunisation programme and Qantas’ introduction of a digital “vaccination passport” which will act like a visa.

The Australian carrier, which officially suspended flights to and from South Africa in November 2020, had initially hoped for a restart in July, but, due to a resurgence of infections in the United Kingdom, the United States and South Africa – largely driven by a host of new Covid-19 variants – has extended its suspension by four months.

The only Qantas flights which are expected to return to normal frequency in July are those to and from New Zealand, in what has been described as a safe “travel bubble.”

Qantas’ future flight plans were discussed in detail during a recent briefing on the airline’s half-year financial results. On 25 February, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce revealed that the airline had recorded a loss of more than $1 billion AUS (almost R12 billion) in the six months to end-December 2020.

“Border closures meant we lost virtually 100% of our international flights and 70% of our domestic flights,” explained Joyce.

“Three quarters of our revenue, around $7 billion (R82 billion) went with it.”

Both Australia and New Zealand, Qantas’ biggest regional markets, have implemented some of the toughest and longest border closure measures to mitigate the spread of Covid-19. In addition to blocking international visitors, domestic flights within Australia have been severely restricted at varying levels of lockdown.

Like South Africa, Australia’s vaccination programme is being rolled out in a phased approach, targeting the most vulnerable residents, like health workers, the elderly and those with comorbidities, first. Australia hopes to have the majority of its population vaccinated by October.

This is an important point for Joyce, who has been outspoken on the topic of vaccines. He previously supported a mandatory vaccination policy for passengers wishing to fly aboard the airline. Last week, at the results announcement, he toned down his views, saying instead that governments were likely to introduce a blanket vaccine requirement for international travellers.

In preparation, Qantas has started to develop a digital health pass which will be based on the CommonPass and the International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) Travel Pass, which allow travellers to identify required Covid-19 test types and alerts applicable to their destination. Several airlines, including Qantas, are already trialling the IATA Travel Pass which allows passengers to:

  • Create a ‘digital passport’ (which generates a QR code via a mobile app containing authenticated travel information, which can be shown to the relevant authorities)
  • Verify their test/vaccination meets the regulations
  • Share test or vaccination certificates with authorities to facilitate travel (by uploading  and storing a digital copy of the official certificates which are supplied by health officials in the home country)

“It will be in an app on your phone, that you can present along with your travel documentation that shows proof of vaccination, and also if you had required to have a Covid test before travel, the results of that test,” explained Vanessa Hudson, Qantas’ chief financial officer.

The focus, according to both Joyce and Hudson, will be on developing a platform which supports a seamless check-in process for passengers and Qantas staff, similar to the current visa-checking system.

“So, our check-in agent in Los Angeles [as an example] will check in somebody, they’ll check for visa, they’ll check with the government whether the vaccination is of a required and acceptable level, and then they’ll be allowed entry into the country,” explained Joyce.

“That’s the way it works with visas. It shouldn’t be any different.”

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