Bold plan to bring Aussies home
More than 140 international flights, with about 30,000 seats in total, landed in Australia in the first week of September.
But, due to tight caps on arrival numbers during the coronavirus pandemic, only 4000 people were on those flights - leaving some 26,000 seats empty.
The Board of Airline Representatives to Australia (BARA) is now calling on the Federal Government to make changes to the way international arrivals are received in a desperate bid to help airlines stay afloat and help what they estimate to be 100,000 Aussies stranded around the world get back home.
BARA has said no additional flights are needed to facilitate more arrivals, rather a change to how many people are allowed on-board each flight and changes to the way returning travellers are quarantined.
"Australians overseas would benefit the most from a quarantine capacity plan across Australia that allowed international airlines to operate flights with more commercially viable passenger loads," BARA executive director Barry Abram said.
"A target average of at least 100 passengers per arriving flight, while still difficult financially, is far better than 30 or less."
The statement also suggested returned travellers from some countries could skip hotel quarantine completely, meaning there would be no additional strain on the existing system in each city.
"A risk-based approach to mitigating COVID-19, with measures other than mandatory 14 days quarantine for Australians returning from countries with little or no COVID-19 would also free up quarantine capacity for passengers from other countries," Mr Abrams said.
"It would also provide a path to a more sustainable industry, based on about 150 international flights per week, so that Australia can maintain a minimum level of connectivity with overseas countries until more open international borders and travel can occur."
Currently, each state sets its own cap on international arrivals through National Cabinet with numbers varying across the country.
Melbourne has opted out of receiving any international flights as it deals with its deadly second wave, and NSW is currently taking in double the number of travellers each week than every other state combined.
The measure was first introduced in early July, and on August 7, National Cabinet agreed to extend the caps to October 24.
There is no firm information yet available on what would happen after that date - though Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on September 4 that National Cabinet had agreed there was a need to "further boost the capacity for inbound arrivals into Australia".
Last month, Australians stranded around the world were asked to register their intention to return home with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
About 23,000 have added their name to the official list, but BARA estimates the number is closer to 100,000.
Australian travellers in precarious situations overseas were urged to come home immediately in March, while others were told to stay put.
Since then, horror stories have emerged of families expecting babies who were not able to fly at the time now can't get on a plane, young professionals who had a secure job at the time and then lost it as a result of the pandemic, leaving them with no income and no way to afford accommodation, and people couch surfing as their flight home is bumped again and again.
Mr Abrams issued a dire warning that if nothing changes soon, there could be even less ways for Australians still overseas to get home.
"International airlines are still providing some 30,000 seats into Australia each week, and Australians overseas can still return home through flights from overseas countries to global hubs then onto Australia or get direct flights to Australia from overseas countries including New Zealand, the United States and China," Mr Abrams said.
"Most of this capacity, however, must remain unused and aircraft land in Australia largely empty under the tight international passenger arrival caps.
"It is obviously frustrating for Australians stranded overseas and international airlines that such a situation continues to prevail. It cannot be expected that international airlines continue indefinitely with such flights on a commercial basis."
A statement from the Prime Minister's office following the most recent National Cabinet meeting said there would be a boost in arrival capacity "where possible". This could mean flights bound for Sydney diverted to a different state if there was room for those passengers.
"National Cabinet conducted its fortnightly review of international air arrival passenger caps and agreed to boost the capacity for international arrivals where possible, supporting more Australians to come home from overseas," Mr Morrison said.
"All states and territories, where possible, agreed to work with the Commonwealth to increase the number of international flights to their jurisdiction to enable more Australians to return home.
"National Cabinet agreed the Commonwealth will work with airlines to identify opportunities to boost arrivals into cities with available quarantine capacity."
Originally published as Bold plan to bring Aussies home