Coronavirus repatriation flights to Australia: The unusual airlines that have flown in

If planespotters around the country weren't locked down at home in recent weeks, they would have found themselves treated to a parade of unusual aircraft in Australian skies.

While the COVID-19 pandemic has seen air travel around the world restricted and more than 16,000 passenger planes grounded, it has also meant airlines have been flying some one-off, occasionally record-breaking, flights.

Several airlines have flown into Australia from from Europe, the Middle East and South America for the first time, often for special repatriation flights to bring their citizens home.

LOT Polish Airlines became the first airline to make a debut in Australian skies during COVID-19 when it arrived at Sydney Airport on March 29 from Poland via Singapore. A second flight arrived via Bangkok on April 1. With support from Poland's government, LOT flew 388 repatriation flights to 71 destinations around the world over three weeks.

Austrian Airlines set a new distance record for planes in the Lufthansa Group (its parent company) when it flew a Boeing 777-200ER non-stop from Vienna to Sydney on March 30. The 18-hour non-stop flight picked up 250 passengers in Sydney, returning to Austria via Penang, Malaysia.

El Al, Israel's national airline, made its debut in Australia with a non-stop flight to Perth in late March, followed by a flight into Melbourne on April 2. Several hundred Australians were brought home on the flights, while close to 500 Israelis returned home. The airline had already intended to test the viability of a non-stop route between Melbourne and Tel Aviv this year with several trial flights.

Nepal Airlines flew from Kathmandu into Brisbane Airport on April 1 carrying Australians who had been stranded in the mountainous country.

Australia's ambassador to Nepal, Mr Peter Bell, wrote on Twitter that the Airbus A330 was carrying 281 Australian and New Zealand passengers to Sydney. Upon its return, the flight stopped in Kuala Lumpur to pick up 30,000 COVID-19 testing kits for use in Nepal.

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Other airlines to fly to Australia for the first time during the coronavirus outbreak include Germany's Condor, Switzerland's Edelweiss Air, Pakistan International Airlines and Spain's Iberia.

Another notable flight was the arrival of charter company's Hi Fly from Montevideo, Uruguay. The aircraft was chartered by Aurora Expeditions to get Australian passengers on board the Greg Mortimer cruise ship home after they had been refused from several other ports across South America.

The flight, which took 16 hours and nine minutes, swept south from Uruguay towards Antarctica before passing over New Zealand on its way to Melbourne. An A340-300 was used for the flight. While the four-engine A340 is known for its ability to fly long distances (it previously flew the longest scheduled route in the world, Singapore to New York, non-stop), the aircraft has fallen out of favour in recent years due to its relatively poor fuel efficiency. Airbus announced it would stop manufacturing the jet in 2011.

In order to fly to Australia, the airlines first had to receive permission from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) if they did not already hold a current foreign air operators certificate.

"The airlines require safety clearance in addition to approvals from other areas such as air traffic control, airport landing clearances and permission from Border Force," said Peter Gibson from CASA.

"We do a timely review of the airline's safety performance based on available information and the record of the home nation."

Several airlines that provide private jets also sought permission to fly from CASA during the outbreak, including Trans-Exec Air Service, based in the US, and Qatar Airways' private jet subsidiary, Qatar Executive Jet.

Though many airlines flew new long-haul routes to Australia due to COVID-19, none were able to surpass the record set by Air Tahiti Nui in March. After travel restrictions were announced in the US, the airline skipped its regular stop-off in Los Angeles and flew non-stop from Tahiti to Paris, covering a whopping 15,715 kilometres.

That journey now holds the record for the world's longest (by distance) commercial passenger flight, surpassing the regularly scheduled Singapore-New York flight by 342 kilometres.

The new airlines to Australia due to COVID-19

LOT Polish Airlines

Condor Flugdienst GMBH

El Al Israel Airlines

Trans-Exec Air Service (US)

Nepal Airlines

Austrian Airlines

Edelweiss Air (Switzerland)

Lion Air (Indonesia)

Qatar Executive Jet

KLM (Netherlands - first Australia flight in 20 years)

Iberia (Spain)

Pakistan International Airlines

Egyptair Airlines

Hi Fly (charter airline, Portugal)

See also: Etihad to restart Australia-London flights this week

See also: New Qantas non-stop flights a chance to bring overseas pets home

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