Passenger caps limiting arrivals into Australia have been in place since July last year and do not appear to be going anywhere soon. Travel agents report that it is a nerve-racking experience booking flights to Australia, knowing the passengers could be offloaded, particularly when bookings are made in economy class.
Flight options for travel between South Africa and Australia are vastly reduced from last year. Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Etihad Airways and Air Mauritius have not resumed flights to South Africa since our borders reopened. Emirates has recently suspended flights to South Africa, and travel restrictions mean that Singapore Airlines currently is unable to transport passengers from South Africa, other than Singaporeans.
This leaves South African agents with only one option to reach Australia, Qatar Airways. And while the agent community praises Qatar for its commitment to continue operating its South African routes, there is much confusion as to whether agents can reliably book economy-class seats for passengers on these routes.
Travel News has previously reported accounts from agents where economy-class passengers have been bumped off repatriation flights, but family members booked in business class on the same flight have managed to depart. There are many more nightmare stories circulating on Facebook's Open Jaw by Travelinfo group. As a result, agents are recommending that passengers book business-class seats to Australia to give their passengers a stronger chance of being boarded.
Md of Checkout Travel, Holly Pereira, asked several airlines for more clarity about the international travel cap situation and the processes that airlines were following for offloading passengers due to the Australian cap. Holly shared the following extract of an emailed response from the QR sales representative:
“With Australia, currently the cap is so low and availability is an issue, however, so far in advance it is really hard to say. It could potentially go either way, where the cap is bigger or reduced. However, I have currently been advising agents to secure and lessen the risk of not making the cap, to book either J or Y class. Remember, we have no control of who is bumped off and who not. The pax manifest is sent to border control,” said the Qatar sales rep in an email to Holly.
However, directly contradicting this, smartraveller.gov.au, an Australian government travel advisory website, clearly says it is up to airlines to manage the sale of tickets in line with caps and not the Australian government.
“There are caps on the numbers of passengers coming into Australian airports from overseas... Airlines manage the sale of tickets in line with the caps, not the government. This could affect your flight into Australia,” says the website, advising clients to be prepared for delays and disruptions should they choose to travel to Australia.
Why make economy class available?
“I understand that there are a limited number of seats that can be sold and that most lower classes are not being opened, otherwise the flight would not be financially viable, but there are still a number of Qatar economy-class seats available in GDS availability displays. When is it safe to book these flights? If Qatar is offloading passengers based on which passengers paid the least for their ticket, why do they not just close off all economy-class seats, allowing agents to sell business class with the confidence that these passengers will make it to Australia?” asked Holly.
She said the ambiguity of the situation was making it difficult for travel agents to advise their clients correctly. “Some clients simply cannot afford business-class flights and will take a chance booking via the available economy-class seats. If I advise my client not to book these seats, they may go elsewhere or book online seeing that these classes are actually available for sale online. They may also think that I am trying to extort money from them. And what do we do regarding long-term bookings for June or later? Is it safe to book economy-class seats then? Surely there is a more reliable way to book flights to Australia and know that the passengers will not be offloaded?”
Other agents have raised similar concerns and have told Travel News that the cost of business-class tickets had dramatically increased in the past month since Qatar found itself operating a monopoly on the route. However, it is unclear whether these price increases relate to a premeditated fare increase or if the higher cost is simply a consequence of limited availability of business-class seats on the route.
In August, the airline responded to questions from Travel News regarding passengers being bumped off repatriation flights due to the Australian cap, as follows: “Qatar Airways analyses each flight based on a range of criteria, including compassionate and medical requirements, connecting flights, booking class, party size and commercial value. In order to ensure the continued viability of our operations to Australia, commercial value of tickets sold must also be taken into consideration to be able to operate each flight.”
Travel News contacted Qatar Airways for updated comment but had not received a response at time of publication.