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London: Airlines say 18,000 Australians are set to be bumped from flights back home in the next six weeks as a result of the national cabinet’s decision to halve the number of international arrivals until at least the end of August.
It means the number of Australians who’ve registered their desire to return with the government, currently around 34,000, is likely to grow.
Barry Abrams, who heads the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia, said last week’s decision had set the industry back to the position it was in last year when the government first announced a restriction on the number of citizens who could enter the country.
That decision sent the cost of scarce tickets into the tens of thousands of dollars and saw thousands of people bumped repeatedly from flights because there were more passengers than quarantine spaces.
Warning this was about to happen again, he described the decision as a major setback because it followed a period of relative stability for airlines and returning Australians after the chaos that ensued when the caps were first introduced.
“Over the next six weeks, airlines will need to move 18,000 people from flights, that’s just the maths,” Mr Abrams told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
“All of them will have legitimate and genuine reasons why they can return on those flights; it will be a very stressful situation for everybody.”
Mr Abrams pleaded with passengers not to take their frustration out on airline staff.
“They’re operating in really difficult circumstances to keep Australia connected,” he said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade says around 34,000 Australians have registered with the government as wanting to come home.
Airlines are waiting to receive their allocation of passenger numbers as a result of the decision taken last week by the Prime Minister and Premiers to halve Australia’s intake from 6070 to 3035 by 14 July until at least the end of August.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison signalled last Friday that the flight cap would likely last for the remainder of the year, subject to health advice, but that the government would consider trialling the introduction of home quarantine for returning vaccinated travellers.
Mr Morrison later said it was likely the reduced international flights cap would last for the remainder of the year subject to health advice.
Mr Abrams warned that most airlines had only just managed to break even on flights with the limited allowed number of passengers and increased freight loads and that some smaller carriers with fewer routes might abandon Australia altogether if they were only allowed to fly 10 passengers per flight, for example.
Singapore Airlines has already stopped selling tickets for October flights citing the reduced flight numbers.
Foreign Minister Marise Payne told 2GB radio that the government would operate 20 repatriation flights into the Howard Springs quarantine facility from India and Europe between now and September.
She declined to join in criticising airlines, as her Cabinet colleague Health Minister Greg Hunt did on the weekend when he accused carriers of price gouging.
“The restrictions that are in place in the international aviation environment due to COVID, the very, very difficult commercial environment in which they’re operating, I know that airlines that we’ve relied on have been doing all they can to return Australians,” the foreign minister said.
The decision to slash inbound arrivals came after a campaign by the Labor Premiers to slash the number of people going through hotel quarantine, which has been the source of Australia’s coronavirus outbreaks.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said last week before the national cabinet meeting: “If we have to make a choice between more people coming here or reducing those numbers for the next three months, which will make lockdowns less likely – I don’t think that’s a very difficult choice to make.”
Federal Labor backbencher Julian Hill, who has been campaigning for foreign-born partners of Australians to be granted entry to Australia, said he was fed up with the collective failure from the country’s political leaders to reunite families and get Australians home.
“How on earth did Australia end up here?” he said.
“The rest of the world is opening up, yet Australia is abandoning our own citizens and cruelly keeping Australians separated from their loved ones indefinitely.
“Premiers arguing to cut arrivals is no doubt due to the Prime Minister’s failure on vaccines and quarantine but it’s still a pathetic admission of defeat.”
Federal Liberal backbencher Jason Falinki said the new cut was “cruel” and that too many families had been kept apart for too long.
“We should have been increasing the number of people who can return to Australia,” he said.
Former Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane said those who had booked tickets to come home would thrown into uncertainty as a result of the national cabinet’s decision.
“It’s a distressing situation for those unable to come back,” he said.
“It shows how perverse and corrosive the Fortress Australia mentality has become; this pandemic has revealed a nasty protectionist streak in our national psyche.
“Australia’s pandemic response remains locked into a pre-vaccine posture but especially in a world with a vaccine, things should be different – it should be possible to bring more Australians back home safely, especially those already fully vaccinated,” he said.
The government says since closing the borders in March 2020, 617,000 Australians have been able to return.
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