It’s now been four months since the Australian government closed its border to non-Australian citizens and residents, and banned Aussies from leaving their own country without special permission. Shortly after, the federal government introduced mandatory hotel quarantine upon arrival into Australia.
Ever since March, flight cancellations and border restrictions – not just in Australia – have made it progressively more difficult for those overseas to return home. It seems we are now approaching the most difficult time to travel to Australia in modern history – much to the annoyance of Australians that have already been trying unsuccessfully to return home for months.
Passenger numbers limited
The number of passengers allowed to arrive on international flights is now severely capped at most Australian airports. There is currently a limit of just 30 passengers per flight arriving in Sydney and Brisbane, or 50 passengers per flight in Perth. These limits are currently in place until at least 8 August, but could be extended. There are also new daily and weekly arrival limits.
Adelaide Airport currently has a limit of 150 passengers, and Canberra’s cap is 250 people – although there are currently no regularly scheduled international flights to Canberra. Meanwhile, Victoria is not accepting any international arrivals until further notice as it deals with the current outbreak in Melbourne.
The limits on passenger numbers – understandably designed to reduce pressure on Australia’s hotel quarantine system – have caused huge inconvenience and had unintended consequences.
Firstly, limiting the number of seats that can be sold on an international flight to just 30 makes it unviable for many airlines to continue flying to Australia. They can still carry cargo and there are no limits on outbound passenger numbers, but this still makes it uneconomical for many airlines to continue services. If these limits stick around, the number of commercial flight options to Australia will further reduce.
The limits have also created havoc for passengers that were booked to travel to Australia in the coming weeks. Some passengers with confirmed tickets have been denied boarding because the 30-passenger limit had already been exceeded. There are even reports that Qatar Airways is asking passengers to pay thousands to upgrade to Business class or be refused transportation.
In a statement, Qatar Airways told Australian Frequent Flyer that each flight is analysed on a case-by-case basis in line with the changing government restrictions:
Due to the limitations on passengers travelling to Australian destinations, Qatar Airways analyses each flight on a case by case basis to ensure we facilitate onward travel to the final destination for as many passengers as possible. The passenger list is continually assessed and based on a range of criteria, including compassionate and medical requests, connecting flights, booking class, party size etc. We continue to work closely with our passengers to find alternative flights if they are unable to travel on their original intended flight.
Ridiculously high airfares
Indeed, Qatar Airways is not currently selling any Economy class seats to Australia over the coming weeks. And the Business class airfares are eye-watering. If you need to travel with Qatar Airways to Australia in the near future, you can expect to pay around $10,000 for a one-way Business class seat from Doha to Sydney or Perth. Flights from Europe to Australia are priced similarly.
Want to fly from Doha to Brisbane? That’ll cost you $13,000 per person for a one-way ticket.
This probably seems harsh on passengers, and it is. But when the government tells airlines they’re only allowed to carry 30 passengers on a 13-hour flight, you would expect airlines to charge the maximum possible airfare for every one of those 30 seats. A Qatar Airways Airbus A350-1000 normally seats 317 passengers. The only realistic alternative would be to stop flights altogether. Perhaps that’s what the Australian government wants.
Qatar Airways has responded:
Due to the limitations on the number of passengers that can travel to Australian destinations, seats are selling out across all fare classes from lowest to highest due to limited supply. Any remaining seats that appear for sale are the very last available in the highest booking classes. Due to the restrictions on inbound travel to Australia, ticket prices are higher than usual to cover the operational costs of both legs but fare structures have not been increased. As our primary aim is to take people home at this time, we recommend passengers book as early as possible to secure the best available prices.
Interestingly, Qatar Airways will extend its new Doha-Brisbane service to Auckland next month. QR912/913 will route as Doha-Brisbane-Auckland, but Qatar Airways will not sell tickets between Brisbane and Auckland only. Perhaps this is one way for the airline to carry more than 30 total passengers on its flights to Brisbane – a more economical outcome – while simultaneously satisfying Queensland government requirements and resuming service to New Zealand.
Passengers charged for 14-day hotel quarantine
Even if you can get on a flight, most Australian states are now charging returning travellers for their 14 days of mandatory hotel quarantine upon arrival. The costs vary by state, but it’s $3000 for a single adult in NSW or $2,800 in Queensland.
In the case of NSW, the user-pays system applies to anyone that booked their ticket on or after 13 July 2020. Quarantine for anyone that booked before this date will continue to be paid for by the NSW government.
Getting home is now very difficult
So, while Australia cannot technically refuse entry to a citizen or permanent resident, the government is doing almost everything it can to make it difficult for people to return now.
Tens of thousands of Australians have already returned home since the pandemic began. The government claims that any Aussies still overseas have now had ample opportunity to return home, so must have delayed this decision. While this may be true for some, many of those still overseas have quite valid reasons for not returning sooner. Some are expats, for example, that have just finished long-term work contracts. Others have simply not been able to return home sooner due to lockdowns or a lack of flights in their current locations.