Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: Coronavirus: Business and technology in a pandemic

How Asia Pacific airlines are handling coronavirus travel restrictions

What compensation are airlines offering passengers and what impact is this having on each airline?

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 March 26.

"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. 

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 that it will operate a limited international network from March 30 to May 31 2020 to enable essential travel.

The Kiwi airline also announced for passengers with flights booked up to June 30, can make one change to their existing booking for free. Fare differences will also be waived. Alternatively, they can exchange it for a travel credit that's valid for 12 months from the day the booking is cancelled.

However, passengers who purchased on a non-refundable ticket are unable to receive a refund. 

In an email to staff and customers, Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran confirmed the airline will reduce its 12,500-person workforce by 3,500 in the coming months due to the significant decline in revenue that has resulted from the outbreak of COVID-19.

"Unfortunately, COVID-19 has seen us go from having revenue of NZ$5.8 billion to what is shaping up to be less than $500 million annually based on the current booking patterns we are seeing. That's right -- a drop of more than NZ$5 billion dollars. This has the potential to be catastrophic for our business unless we take some decisive action ... Clearly, we will be smaller for some time and we will need fewer staff. We expect that even in a year's time we will be at least 30% smaller than we are today," he wrote. 

The latest update comes after the airline entered into a trading halt March 16 to "allow it time to more fully assess the operational and financial impacts of global travel restrictions".  

Qantas

Similarly, Qantas also has plans to cut international flights. In an update on March 24, 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 April 30, offering customers with existing bookings on domestic or international Qantas, QantasLink, and Jetstar for travel before July 31 the option to cancel their flight in exchange for a travel credit voucher for travel by 31 December 2021. This includes flight credits issued on or after January 31. 

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

Virgin Australia entered into a trading halt on March 31 and is seeking financial support from the federal government to survive the fallout from the coronavirus crisis.

However, the carrier did not confirm the bailout amount it is seeking. 

"We have been in ongoing discussions with government about the support the whole industry will need if this crisis is prolonged,"  a Virgin Australia spokesperson told ZDNet. 

"Companies like ours are taking a range of measures to respond and manage the financial impact. However, the support we've proposed will be necessary for the industry if this crisis continues indefinitely, to protect jobs and ensure Australia retains a strong, competitive aviation and tourism sector once this crisis is over."

It comes after the airline announced it was further reducing the capacity of 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.

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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 June 30 have the option to rebook their flights to any Emirates destination within the same region without a rebooking fee or paying any fare difference.  

The airline said it will temporarily suspend all passenger flights by March 25. 

"As per UAE government directives to protect communities against the spread of COVID-19, Emirates has temporarily suspended all passenger flights from 25 March 2020. The airline will resume passenger services as soon as it is possible to do so. In the meantime, Emirates is still busy deploying its fleet of Boeing 777 freighters, bolstering international air cargo links for the transport of vital goods, including medical supplies and food, around the world," the company announced.

Etihad Airways

Etihad Airways said it is suspending all flights and giving travellers "peace of mind" by allowing those who were scheduled to fly with Etihad Airways before June 30 to rebook their flight for free, or use the value of the ticket as credit towards the next trip that needs to be booked before September 30, for travel until 31 July 2021. 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 any travel date before October 31 without an additional cost or to receive 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 who booked before 23 March for travel until 31 May the chance to receive a refund for their ticket free of charge. Alternatively, passengers can rebook or reroute their ticket for travel on or before 10 December. 

All new tickets issued between 9 March and 20 April can be changed unlimited times, for no extra charge.  

Chairman Patrick Healey previously 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

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 March 19.

"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 the Australian government's 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.

Updated 27 March 2020, 11:27 am (AEDT): Updated information about services and travel credit for Qantas, Air New Zealand, Cathay Pacific, Air Asia, Emirates, and Etihad have been included.

Updated 31 March 2020, 11:51 am (AEDT): Updated information about Air New Zealand and Virgin Australia's operations have been included.