Rescue flights for Australians overseas during COVID-19 outbreak: Should the government come to the rescue?

Australians don't usually cheer when their homecoming aircraft hits the tarmac, but there's been plenty of cheers over the past few weeks as Australians stranded by coronavirus lockdowns in Europe, Asia and South America have finally made it back to our shores.

Hunkered down in hotels or in the spare room with foreign relatives, prevented from going out to see the very things that brought them far from home, it's been traumatic, distressing and, in many cases, expensive. It's also a lesson in who you can count on for help in a crisis.

While plenty have looked to the Australian government to intervene, the government cannot send in the cavalry to extricate stranded Australians. It can only do what a foreign government will allow it to do, while, in the words of a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesperson, "encouraging Australians to take commercial options where they are still available and helping Australians who are most in need (such as those in remote locations or without a support network) that have faced sudden travel restrictions imposed locally and are unable to make their own way home."

According to DFAT, "More than 300,000 Australians have returned home since 13 March, when the government advised all Australians to reconsider the need to travel overseas."

When you're trapped…what happens next

A Qantas flight carrying more than 200 Australians evacuated from the coronavirus epicentre of Wuhan in China lands in Darwin.

A Qantas flight carrying more than 200 Australians evacuated from the coronavirus epicentre of Wuhan in China lands in Darwin. Photo: Helen Orr

As the coronavirus crisis began to unfold in China, an estimated 600 Australians were trapped by the lockdown in Hubei province and its capital, Wuhan, coronavirus ground zero. In early February the Australian government organised two Qantas charter flights to bring most of those Australians home to quarantine.

As well as swift and decisive intervention, the government also picked up the tab for the flights. But according to a DFAT spokesperson, "The government will only step in to facilitate commercial flights home where there are no alternatives. The government has been clear that fully assisted departures that were provided for Australians in Wuhan and Yokohama were undertaken on public health grounds and are unlikely to be repeated. Australians should not rely on free flights."

The commercial option was what happened at the beginning of April when Qantas and Virgin operated repatriation flights from London, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Auckland, with standard airfares applied and the Australian government agreeing to spring for any shortfall. Despite coronavirus, the USA, the UK and New Zealand are relatively easy places from which to organise flights for those wanting to come home. For thousands of Australians trapped in more remote parts of the world it's been a different story.

By the time the Aurora Expeditions vessel Greg Mortimer reached the coast of South America after its return voyage from Antarctica, Chile and Argentina had closed their ports. Montevideo in Uruguay offered a faint possibility for disembarkation but more than half the 217 on board tested positive for the new coronavirus and port authorities there were refusing to allow passengers to leave the ship. After intensive work on the part of the Australian government and their Uruguayan counterparts, and to the Uruguayan government's credit, they agreed to allow the passengers off and bussed them to the airport.

The Greg Mortimer.

The Greg Mortimer.

The repatriation flight, on 11 April, operated by Lisbon-based charter operator Hi Fly, was one of the longest ever passenger flights aboard an Airbus A340-300. In its non-stop flight from Montevideo to Melbourne, the four-engine A340 took 16 hours and 16 minutes to cover the 6700 nautical miles on a great circle route that took it deep into southern latitudes.

In India, more than a thousand Australians were trapped when the country's government imposed its lockdown that halted international flights in late March. In response to the increasing desperation of Australians looking for a way home, Australian expat and New Delhi resident Simon Quinn created a Facebook support group, "Australians Stuck in India", which became the rallying point for those wanting out.

Together with Brendon Hempel, managing director of Victoria-based aircraft leasing operation Stratos Group Aviation and Australian charter company Monarc Global, which designed an online ticketing system for the evacuation flights, the group leased a Lion Air aircraft to fly Australians from Delhi to Melbourne via Denpasar, with another Lion Air flight from Chennai touching down in Adelaide on April 20 and another from Mumbai expected to follow soon.

While the Australian High Commission in New Delhi was able to help with contacts and logistics, chartering an aircraft from Lion Air would not have been an option for the Australian government. On its website, the High Commission notes "A Lion Air plane fatally crashed on 29 October 2018. Since then, Australian government officials and contractors in Indonesia have been instructed not to fly on Lion Air or subsidiary airlines that operate outside of Australia." That was Lion Air Flight 610, the first of two Boeing 737 MAX model aircraft that crashed killing all on board, and which led to the subsequent grounding of all Boeing 737 MAX aircraft worldwide, a headache for Boeing that refuses to depart.

If you have to take a charter flight in an emergency, expect a big hit to your wallet. Australians stranded in Peru were charged over $5000 for a flight from Lima to Melbourne.

A charter flight from Uruguay lands at Melbourne Airport.

A charter flight from Uruguay lands at Melbourne Airport. Photo: Darrian Traynor

How do you know when to hit the eject button?

When the sun is shining, when you've got a sunset date with a margarita by the pool, when you've finally booked a table in that restaurant everyone's been talking about, who wants to leave your holiday hotspot? There are stories about some viral outbreak happening some place in China that nobody has ever heard of but so what? Unless you're an expert in infectious diseases, that won't ring any alarm bells. No one around here looks sick, the bars and pubs are going full steam, so what's the problem?

A cautious traveller with a long memory might Google "severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)", the 2002-2004 coronavirus that also originated in China, and discover that the total global death toll was 774. And so you stay, but then the curtain comes crashing down. Trains and buses stop, the airports close and you're caught.

Hindsight is 20-20. Easy to say "You should have got out when you could," but disasters don't honk to let you they're coming. Just like the volcanic eruptions that grounded flights in Iceland and Bali, stranding thousands of travellers – or like the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004. One moment you're walking along a beach on Phuket where the tide seems to be out a long way this morning, the next a giant fisted wave sweeps you off your feet into a swirling mayhem that slams into the coast sucking up trees, houses, buses and holiday resorts and steals a quarter of a million lives.

Even vastly experienced travel operators with worldwide intelligence networks and diligent guides get caught. "At Abercrombie & Kent we had less than 24 hours to act when the Moroccan government announced that international flights would stop operating," according to Sujata Raman, A&K's Regional Managing Director for Australia and Asia Pacific. "Working between the US, UK, Australia and our Morocco team on ground, we airlifted all guests in country out to Luton on a charter flight, with assistance for the night and onward connections home from Heathrow the following day. A&K basically underwrote the cost of the charter, with some nominal contribution from guests."

Two young sisters wear face masks in Rabat, Morocco.

Two young sisters wear face masks in Rabat, Morocco. Photo: AP

If you're on a tour with a quality operator, while they can't anticipate a crisis you can expect them to do whatever is humanly possible to extricate you in double quick time. Same applies if you booked through a travel agent, but if you're on your lonesome, look to commercial operators to get you out before you turn to the government for help, and be prepared to dig deep into your pocket.

See also: Think it would be fun to be stranded in paradise? Think again

See also: Desperate Aussies forced to pay $28,000 to fly home after missing connection