HomeTravelCould you soon be flying from Heathrow direct to Australia’s Outback?

Could you soon be flying from Heathrow direct to Australia’s Outback?

Gazing from the window of a BA Airbus taking off from Heathrow’s southern runway last week, I did a double-take when I saw a Qantas Boeing 787 parked in its previously usual spot at Heathrow airport’s Terminal 3.

But the jet was not about to fly to Perth in Western Australia, the revolutionary 9,000-mile-plus nonstop route pioneered in 2018. Instead, it was due to depart to Darwin in the Northern Territory (NT) – the last of six repatriation flights the Australian carrier operated in August.

The NT capital has become the sole Qantas destination from Heathrow because it serves the Howard Springs mining camp, just 10 miles southwest of Darwin airport. This is a quarantine facility, holding 850 people, and recently renamed the “Centre of National Resilience”.

The Darwin flights are not for the likes of you or me. Before you can book one, you need a “DFAT approval code” – supplied sparingly by the government in Canberra to “Australian citizens and permanent residents who are currently overseas and have been trying to return home but haven’t been able to”.

The 16-hour long haul may be different from your last Qantas experience. “Limited onboard food and bottles of water,” the airline warns – inviting passengers to bring their own food and drink on board, but no alcohol.

“You’ll also be required to change your mask every two hours throughout the flight,” Qantas adds cheerfully.

Four months from now, though, the carrier plans to offer regular scheduled flights from London to Australia. Qantas has announced a “gradual restart” of international flights from December. The airline’s optimism is based on the Australian government’s stated aim to ease the borders policy once vaccination reaches 80 per cent.

The announcement comes as Australia’s “zero Covid” campaign is in disarray. On the last day of August, active cases topped 18,000 and deaths from coronavirus passed the grim 1,000 milestone.

That could mean the federal government cracks down still further on international travel. But Qantas insists that “December 2021 remains in reach, based on pace of vaccine rollout”. It says long lead times for international readiness mean the airline has to make some reasonable assumptions “to make sure it can offer flights to customers as soon as they become feasible”.

The UK, along with the US, Canada, Japan and Hong Kong, is described as “Covid-safe” in Qantas’s statement about the restart. The first British route will be London-Singapore-Sydney, operated by a Boeing 787. But from mid-2022, the Airbus A380 will be back on the London-Sydney route (as well as to Los Angeles). All but two of the dozen “SuperJumbo” jets in the Qantas fleet will return to service, complete with upgraded cabins.

Meanwhile, demand for UK-Australia nonstops “is expected to be in even higher demand post-Covid”, Qantas believes. But not necessarily to Perth.

The airline says “conservative border policies in Western Australia” may mean the long-haul Boeing is directed to Darwin, rather than Perth.

The London Heathrow-Darwin distance is 8,620 miles, almost 400 miles shorter than to Perth, saving more than 40 minutes on the trip – and several tonnes of fuel. Aircraft can also fly more direct (wind considerations aside) because the shortest route is mainly overflying Russia, Kazakhstan and China rather than Black Sea and Middle East hotspots.

The London-Perth nonstop continued to Melbourne, but a link via Darwin is more direct – adding only 50 miles to the shortest distance between Heathrow and Melbourne.

Qantas is still working on Project Sunrise: the prospect of ultra-long-haul flights connecting London with Sydney. But in the meantime, the sultry tropical city of Darwin may mark landfall for many in Australia – just as it did in the early days of the “Kangaroo route” – with instant access to the wilderness and wonders of the Outback.

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