Tracy C has her eye on Australia in our winter – their summer – and asks when she should book. “I’m desperate to visit my son who lives in Sydney, Australia, before the end of the year,” she tells me. “Probably 5 December to 21, 22 or 23 December.”
Though the proposed journey is nine months away, Tracy has concerns about the effects of war in eastern Europe.
“With the conflict in Ukraine and flight bans in place, do you think it would affect us and any airspace we might fly over?”
Quite rightly, Russia is being isolated for Vladimir Putin’s murderous attack on the people of Ukraine. No one knows how long the Kremlin will wage its wholly unjustified war against its neighbour.
Some people feel strongly that talking about leisure travel while Ukrainians are sheltering in basements or dying on the streets of their cities is simply wrong; Maria responded to a podcast I recorded on the subject by saying, “You shouldn’t even be discussing this”.
Respectfully, I believe it is reasonable to analyse the effects of the Russian military assault on our travels, and to look ahead to a time of year when many people seek to be reunited with loved ones. So I shall respond as best I can, to help Tracy assess when best to book.
International conflicts such as Russia’s shameful attack on Ukraine affect flightpaths. But airlines are wearily accustomed to coping with both closed airspace – currently the whole of Russia, to most European airlines – and conflict zones such as Ukraine.
I have just returned from Doha to Gatwick, and was reminded how times change: the plane flew the length of Iraq and even clipped a corner of Syria, but gave Ukraine a very wide berth.
Like you, I have no idea how Vladimir Putin’s invasion will play out, but if Russian airspace is still closed in December then the most direct routes between the UK and Australia will certainly be off limits. A straight line between Heathrow and Sydney passes north of Moscow and represents about three hours’ flying time over Russian territory.
The same “great circle” route, as it is known, shows the optimum connection points to be Hong Kong or Guangzhou in China; the line goes almost directly overhead both cities. Yet both hubs are closed to British travellers at present – a reminder that government responses to Covid-19 still affects choices, and may well still do so in December.
Because the world is so lacking in certainty, my general view is not to commit to any long-term arrangements; I booked my own trip to Australia the day before travel. I predict that for Tracy’s outbound journey, there will be good-value seats available at short notice: early December is the lowest of seasons.
It’s the return that could cause particular problems. While the predominant direction of travel in the few days before Christmas is from the UK to Australia and Asia, flights in the opposite direction see a significant increase in demand, too.
In 2022, journeys between Europe and Australia will be further hampered by the World Cup finals, being hosted from 21 November to 18 December by Qatar. This will distort the usual pattern of Doha, the capital, being principally an aviation hub.
In normal times almost everyone at Doha airport is in transit, changing planes on Qatar Airways flights. But that will change dramatically with fans, officials and media filling planes starting or ending their journeys in the Gulf state.
While many other ways of getting to Australia are available, the tournament will take capacity from the market, potentially pushing up prices.
In Tracy’s position I would still wait until November to book – but be prepared to travel back on 24 December, arriving in the UK the following day, which could potentially save hundreds of pounds.
During the festive season, the best chance of something approaching a bargain is for a flight that departs or arrives on Christmas Day. Which, right now, seems a very long way off.