Qantas repatriation flights: Buenos Aires to Darwin to be airline's longest ever commercial flight

The longest ever commercial Qantas flight is scheduled to take place next month as part of the federal government's repatriation flights for stranded Australians.

A Qantas Boeing 787 Dreamliner will fly from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to Darwin non-stop on October 5, exceeding the distance of Qantas' previous longest commercial flight, from Perth to London.

The repatriation flight to bring stranded Australians home from South America will cover about 14,680 kilometres, slightly further than the non-stop Perth to London 14,498 kilometre route. It will take close to 18 hours.

Passengers arriving from Buenos Aires on October 5 will be housed in the Howard Springs quarantine facility after arriving in Darwin.

However, there are concerns as to whether Australians in other parts of South America will be able to access the flight, due to Argentina's current border restrictions, which only allow citizens and permanent residents to enter.

Joe May, an Australian in Panama, has been trying to get home for eight months and has secured a seat on the flight for $2396.

Mr May, who has lived in Panama for 18 years, decided to return to Australia after being diagnosed with an auto-immune disease that can't be treated in the Central American country.

After two previous commercial flights home were cancelled, Mr May's situation was becoming desperate. He registered with DFAT about a year ago and received confirmation he had secured a spot on the repatriation flight last month.

"I teach English here and as a result of almost a year of lockdown we have burnt through all our savings," he said. "A very dear friend paid for this flight with their credit card."

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Mr May has a three-year-old daughter with his Ecuadorian wife. He plans to start the process of applying to residency for his family after he arrives in Australia, which he expects to take about two years.

"My heart is broken to be leaving my wife and little girl," he said. "Right now I quite simply feel numb, uncertain and lost."

Mr May now has to wait and see if he will be able to enter Argentina to catch the repatriation flight.

New Zealand-based travel agent Xtravel has helped facilitate five charter flights with South American carrier LATAM to bring Australians home and is assisting dozens of Australians hoping to catch the Buenos Aires flight.

Victoria Keating from Xtravel said Argentina's borders were due to open on October 1, but many Australians were still worried they would not be able to make the October 5 flight.

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs has been contacting Australian nationals about entry requirements for Argentina, which might be possible even if borders do not open.

"But if that happens, if the borders remain closed, then the [South American] airlines are going to pull their flights into Argentina," said Ms Keating. "There are not many flights operating, about one a week on some routes. So some people are trying to get to Buenos Aires on September 30 for a flight on October 5.

"Every single flight scheduled to fly into Argentina right now is subject to government approval … there's every possibility that if any of those commercial flights are cancelled it's going to be too late for us to charter a flight into Argentina.

"We have Australians in the north in Venezuela and Colombia, to the very bottom of Argentina and Chile, as well as Guatemala, El Salvador, Mexico and even the US."

Ms Keating said some Australians had cancelled their seats on board the flight because they were unable to cope with the stress of not knowing whether they would be able to enter Buenos Aires or not.

"These people have to pack up their bags, pack up their lives, hand in keys, give up jobs … and what happens if the flight gets cancelled? There's a lot of uncertainty."

A spokesperson for DFAT said the department was doing everything it could to assist Australians to return.

"The Australian Government continues to work hard to assist Australians to return, including helping them access scheduled commercial flights within passenger caps and implementing a schedule of facilitated commercial flights above the existing passenger caps to maximise quarantine capacity at the Howard Springs facility," the spokesperson said.

According to DFAT the department has assisted more than 56,000 Australians return home since the start of the pandemic, including more than 28,300 people on 184 government facilitated flights, including flights from Santiago and Buenos Aires.

Qantas has operated longer non-stop flights than the Buenos Aires-Darwin flight in the past, but not as a commercial flight. The airline's Project Sunrise test flights flew Boeing 787 Dreamliners from both London and New York to Sydney non-stop, but these did not carry paying passengers and were flown under strict conditions with capacity and luggage limits.

Qantas announced on Monday it would replace its Perth-London route with a Darwin-London non-stop flight until April, a slightly shorter route, due to the Western Australian government's reluctance to open its borders.

See also: $40,000 to fly home: Aussies stranded in NZ turn to charter flights

See also: Qantas restarting international flights, but will destinations let Australians in?

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