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 are required to self-isolate for 14 days.

Foreign cruise ships have also been banned from arriving at Australian ports. 

The movements followed the footsteps of countries such as New Zealand, which also imposed the need for all travellers, including New Zealand citizens and residents, entering the country to self-isolate for 14 days.

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.

Qantas

In an update on May 5, Qantas said international flight cancellations will be extended from the end of May to the end of July. The airline is currently operating around 6% of its international network, which includes charters for the resource sector and passenger aircraft flying as freighters. 

Flight cancellations will be also extended for domestic and flights between Australia and New Zealand until the end of June. The airline added it would continue to monitor the situation and potentially increase its domestic capacity -- which is currently operating at around 13% -- if there is an initial easing of government restrictions around domestic travel before the end of July. 

As a result of these significant cuts, Qantas has stood down the majority of its 30,000 employees. The standing down of employees has been extended from the end of May to until at least the end of June.

"The impact of this stand down is deeply regrettable but has been greatly softened by the Australian Government's Job Keeper program, which the group commenced paying several weeks ahead of the official payment start date," Qantas said in a statement.

The group also announced it has secured a further AU$550 million in funding for three of its wholly-owned Boeing 787-9 aircraft. This is in addition to the AU$1.05 billion raised in March for seven 787-9s. 

In turn, net debt is now at AU$5.8 billion, Qantas said, adding that there is scope to restore some services at relatively short notice if restrictions are eased.

"The group has sufficient liquidity to respond to a range of recovery scenarios, including one where the current trading conditions persist until at least December 2021. The group currently has AU$2.7 billion in unencumbered aircraft assets and can raise funds against these if required," the company said.

In response to imposed travel restrictions, Qantas is offering customers with existing bookings on domestic or international Qantas, QantasLink, and Jetstar travel before September 30, the chance to cancel their booking and retain the full value as travel credit, which can be used for bookings and travel until 31 December 2021. This includes flight credits issued on or after 31 January 2019. 

Additionally, from mid-June, all new and existing unused Jetstar travel vouchers can be used to make multiple flight bookings to any destination across the Jetstar network. Previously, the voucher could only be used on one booking.  

Virgin Australia

After entering into a trading half on March 31, Virgin Australia entered into voluntary administration on April 21, appointing Deloitte as its voluntary administrator. 

Since then, the administrators have been seeking the interest of potential buyers of the airline, with plans to finalise a sale by the end of June. 

"Our objective is to restructure and refinance the business so it emerges stronger on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis. It's still early days, yet I've been encouraged by the level of sophisticated party interest in the sale of Virgin Australia," voluntary administrator and Deloitte restructuring services partner Vaughan Strawbridge said.

It comes after the group continued to seek financial assistance from a number of parties, including state and federal governments, to help it through the crisis after it was forced to cut domestic capacity by 90%, including the suspension of all Tigerair Australia domestic services until at least mid-June. 

This is in addition to the group's decision to suspend all international flights to June 14.

Virgin Australia has now temporarily grounded 125 aircraft from its fleet.  

As a result, the company said it has temporarily stood down approximately 8,000 of the company's 10,000-person workforce until at least the end of May, noting it was working with "more than 25 partners to identify short and long-term redeployment options". 

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.

Air New Zealand

Air New Zealand announced that it will operate a limited international network to May 31 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. 

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Singapore Airlines

Singapore Airlines (SIA) said aside from flights that are operating as part of its reduced schedule of services, all others that were scheduled to up until June 2020 would be cancelled. 

"The reduction of services amounts to 96% of the passenger capacity that had been originally scheduled. SIA and SilkAir will continue to adjust our services in response to the COVID-19 outbreak," the airline stated.

Customers whose flights have been cancelled by SIA or SilkAir will retain the full value of their tickets in the form of travel vouchers. They will also be awarded bonus travel credits based on the cabin class of their original booking, which can be used towards their travel when they rebook. Customers will have until 30 June 2021 to use their travel vouchers.

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 on April 30, it will operate limited passenger services to Frankfurt, London Heathrow, Manila, Sao Paulo, and Shanghai. These flights are one-way flights to facilitate travel for residents and visitors wishing to return home. 

"Only citizens of the destination countries, and those who meet the entry requirements of the destination will be allowed to board. Customers will be required to follow all health and safety measures required by the UAE authorities and the country of destination," 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 July 31 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. Customers who choose the latter option will be rewarded with up to $400 and up to 5,000 frequent flyer points. 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 April 17, for flight departure until June 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 September 30 the option to change their travel free of charge or exchange their ticket for a travel voucher with 10% additional value 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 March 23 for travel until June 30 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 30 June 2021. 

All new tickets issued between March 9 and June 30 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 June 30.

The company said it will waive any fees associated with refunds, cancellations, and date changes for travel departing between 1 September 2020 to 31 March 2021, except for 15 December 2020 and 15 January 2021.

At the time of writing, the novel coronavirus has infected over 3,442,230 globally, according to the World Health Organization, with 239,740 fatalities recorded thus far.

What governments are doing to help

In response to the sharp downturn experienced by the local aviation sector due to COVID-19, the Australian government announced it would 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 refunds and an 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 5 May 2020, 11.06 am (AEST): Updated information from all airline operators have been included.