Australians stranded overseas due to COVID-19: How airlines are deciding who gets to fly home

A top-notch first class air ticket from London to Sydney priced at $36,895? The fastest business class flight from Paris to Melbourne at $25,352?

Yet while both fares involve massive cash splashes, neither guarantees an actual seat on a plane. And with around 37,000 overseas Australians now registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as wanting to return home as a result of COVID-19, that's enormously frustrating.

"It's just all so chaotic," an airline official told Traveller.

"The landscape keeps changing all the time, incoming passenger caps go up and down, other countries alter their policies on who can transit, people's circumstances shift. It makes it impossible to lay down any hard and fast rules."

Fares have soared due to the federal government's incoming passenger caps, which has meant airlines are only able to carry a few dozen passengers on planes built to accommodate hundreds.

For stranded Australians like Rebecca Giles, who is trying to get home from London, it's a battle. She bought a business class ticket through Singapore Airlines for $7534 in November to fly on January 4 but then Singapore put the brakes on planes from the UK because of its highly-infectious mutant virus strain.

"I had to cancel that ticket but I could find absolutely no economy tickets for any date, any month, out of the UK to Australia," said the Sydneysider. "The only ticket I could then find was an Emirates first class ticket for an amazing £5200 (A$9160) one-way to Perth.

"I bought that and kept an eye on the website all the time and managed to move it forward to February 4. But who knows whether I'll still be able to fly now with the reduced numbers allowed into Australia?"

Airline bosses say it's impossible to estimate just how many Australians there are for each seat available as the number of seats – and Australians able to fly – change constantly.

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"But it's safe to say that demand far outstrips supply," said another.

The decision on who gets those places rests with each airline, but there are no real systems in place to determine them. An Emirates spokesman said the airline was carefully following the Australian Government's directive to restrict capacity on all inbound international flights until February 15 and, with DFAT, also takes into account compassionate and humanitarian grounds.

"Despite the capacity restrictions, in most cases a large portion of our seats are allocated to economy class travellers with the remainder allocated to first and business class," he said. "This proportion varies for each flight and depends on several factors including connectivity beyond Dubai and size of groups travelling together."

On Friday, Emirates announced it was suspending flights to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane in the wake of the government's reduced passenger caps.

Singapore Airlines says it's also doing the best it can. "We will be proactively contacting customers to ensure minimal disruption and reduce any inconvenience," said a spokesperson.

Qantas is only operating a repatriation service for the Federal Government at the moment, but Etihad has commercial flights. "Be assured that no passenger or group is prioritised over another and all affected guests are contacted proactively by our teams with options for alternate plans on future flights," a spokesperson said.

Qatar Airways allocates seats based on a range of criteria, including compassionate and medical requirements, connecting flights, booking class, party size and commercial value, says a spokesperson. "However, each passenger's case is treated on an individual basis regardless of what cabin class they have booked.

"We have been assisting many passengers with emergency/compassionate issues as first priority to help them get on a flight home to Australia as soon as possible."

That means special circumstances can help people snare flights – and may allow an airline to push DFAT to ease the cap for a particular flight – as well as travelling with small children. Being a frequently-flying, long-time member of an airline's loyalty system has also been known to bump people up the pecking order, or being an employee of a company doing a lot of business with the airline.

Similarly, if someone's flight has previously been cancelled several times, then they may be prioritised in future, or if they'd have to wait a long time for the next scheduled departure. But this also depends on the rules of the country where they might have to change flights,

Sue Williams airfares graphic

US carrier United Airlines wonders if the Government will come forward with a priority plan. "The Australian government has yet to advise airlines about how to make decisions on whom should be denied boarding," it said in a statement.

The Australian Border Force reports that 280,560 Australian residents have returned by air between March 20, 2020, and January 10, 2021, including 5175 arriving in the first full week of January this year.

DFAT, meanwhile, is planning more repatriation flights and has expanded its financial assistance program for those still overseas. "Further facilitated flights to support the return of vulnerable Australians overseas are planned for the coming weeks from the United Kingdom, India, the US and other countries," an official said.

The federal government announced on Saturday it would support 20 more special repatriation flights for stranded Australians.

See also: Some Australians don't want to come home and I don't blame them

See also: Will the COVID-19 vaccine mean we can travel overseas again?

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