More than 100,000 Australians are stranded overseas because of coronavirus travel bans with reparation likely to take six months under travel caps, the airline industry has warned.
According to government estimates, 18,800 Australians in other countries are looking to return home – but industry experts claim the real figure is around 100,000.
One airline has been forced to turn hundreds of passengers with tickets away at the boarding gate, while others airlines can’t sell new tickets until the current backlog of thousands of passengers is cleared.
The Board of Airline Representatives of Australia, which includes international carriers such as Qatar Airways, Etihad, Emirates, and Singapore Airlines, warned tough restrictions may leave these citizens stranded for many more months.
‘Based on available data and discussions with international airlines, it is possible more than 100,000 Australians are overseas who are, or will be, seeking to return to Australia,’ Barry Abrams, Executive Director of BARA said.
Mr Abrams said there was a pressing need to determine a more accurate total of how many citizens are overseas and trying to return to the country.
‘Based on the current ability to return less than 4,000 Australians per week, often at only 30 passengers per flight, it would take some six months to cover 100,000 Australians overseas,’ he said.
”With passenger numbers on many arriving international flights capped at about 30, the cost per passenger equation becomes terrible for airlines and passengers.’
Opposition Foreign Affairs spokesperson Penny Wong on Friday said the government should be providing financial support for those Australians stuck overseas.
The government has advised those stranded to access early superannuation withdrawals and there have been reports of consular staff advising citizens to start crowdfunding pages.
Mr Abrams said international airlines have told the board the are continuing to receive hundreds of requests for travel back to Australia and are effectively ‘triaging’ cases based on urgency.
Australia closed the nation’s international borders to tourists to halt the spread of COVID-19 on March 20 and told citizens overseas that they should return as soon as possible.
In early July, however, tight international arrival caps were introduced limiting the number of passengers a plane could bring into the country – only 4,000 a week.
This is due to Australia’s commitment to strict hotel quarantine for 14 days for every returning travel, amid fears large numbers of arrivals could disrupt the complicated system.
There have been reports of economy passengers being bumped at the last minute for high paying business customers and planes flying with nearly empty economy sections.
Naomi Nguyen, a 22-year-old from Sydney, is one such Australian who had been working as an English language assistant at a high school in Spain when the country entered lockdown on March 14.
‘Since the Australian government has now decided to bring in flight restrictions/capacities, it has been almost impossible to return home,’ Ms Nguyen wrote.
‘In Sydney, it is also only 30 passengers per plane. So airlines are prioritising business passengers for those 30 seats, the only way to make money.
‘Most of us in economy have literally had our seats taken off us and given to someone else willing to pay for a business one. It is cruel.’
Other Australians have also come froward expressing anger and frustration at the government for not stepping in.
‘Australians are stranded overseas, businesses are unable to trade and families are separated,’ one Australian wrote to Trade Minister Simon Birmingham.
Both Qantas and Virgin Australia have effectively paused international flights, leaving Doha based Qatar Airways as the biggest carrier of passengers into the country.
The airline estimates it has helped return 170,000 Australians and international travelers since March, about tenfold it’s nearest competitor.
CEO Akbar Al Baker said flights had become a ‘balancing act’ under arrival caps with a growing list of bumped passengers unable to be placed on a replacement flight.
‘Many passengers will be unable to travel back to Australia for the foreseeable future,’ he said.
The federal government has reportedly been working on a large scale plan to bring Australians back to the country and quarantine them in remote facilities .
Liberal MP Trent Zimmerman told the Guardian the caps have been ‘probably the biggest area of concern being raised’ by constituents.
Colleague Dave Sharma said he had raised the issue with the government and that he was assured ‘they are working towards increasing the cap’.
The airline industry is also calling on the government to relax flight caps.
‘Given the existing backlog of passengers, greater flexibility within caps would also mean international airlines are better placed to support hardship cases, as there are plenty of spare seats on every flight.’Mr Abrams said.
‘International airlines will continue to work with all levels of government in finding workable solutions for returning Australian citizens home during the COVID-19 pandemic’.