A Qantas 747 evacuating Australians from Wuhan has taken off on Monday morning, flying 270 passengers out of the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.
According to flight tracking site FlightRadar24, the plane took off from Wuhan international airport at 8am local time, and is due to arrive at RAAF base Learmonth, in Exmouth, Western Australia at 2.30pm (AWST).
From there, passengers were set to be transferred to smaller government aircraft, to be flown to Christmas Island to be quarantined for two weeks.
There were a number of children and elderly passengers on the flight manifest, alongside government health officials, a 14-member cabin crew and four pilots.
The crew left Sydney on a Boeing 747 on Sunday afternoon, travelling to Hong Kong before landing in Wuhan on Sunday night.
The flight back to Australia had been been scheduled to take off in the early hours of Monday morning, but Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce said complications around flying out of the locked-down city of Wuhan, from an airport that is largely closed, had caused delays.
The plane had been scheduled to leave Wuhan at 2am, but did not land in the city until 1am on Monday morning. It then spent seven hours in the airport before leaving.
The outbreak of 2019-nCoV has infected more than 14,000 people in China, most in central Hubei province, and killed 360 people. On Sunday, the first coronavirus death outside China was recorded, of a man in the Philippines.
Joyce said the airline had worked closely with the Australian government, including the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, on the “complicated logistics” and health protocols for the flight.
Joyce said a number of precautions had been put in place to manage the risk of transmission of coronavirus among passengers and crew on the flight. All passengers would have health checks before boarding, he said. There would be medical-grade air filters on board and surgical masks for all, to be changed hourly. Interaction between passengers and crew would be restricted.
“The crew … will remain on the upper deck on the of the aircraft, they are there for safety requirements manning doors on departure and arrival,” Joyce told ABC radio. “All the passengers and the crew have been given masks and hand sanitisers, and the crew have gloves.”
Food and drinks was due to be laid out on seats for passengers before boarding to minimise crew interaction with passengers. Officials from the department of health would also be on board the flight.
Joyce said the air filters put new air into the cabin every five minutes, making it cleaner than a restaurant or public transport.
“There is a lot of medical assistance on board, passengers are checked before they get on board, we’ve put in the maximum amount of protection that we can.”
The flight’s crew will not be required to be quarantined after the flight. Australia’s chief medical officer, Prof Brendan Murphy, said on Sunday the measures put in place to protect the crew should be sufficient to avoid the need for quarantine.
Joyce said the crew had volunteered to get Australians out of Wuhan.
“There are a lot of children, a lot of elderly passengers, we need to get them home and out of Wuhan.
“I’m so proud of our crew that they volunteered to do this. They know there’s a slight risk but the captain told me this is so rewarding that they are helping Australians in need.”
After flying to Exmouth, the 747 is set to fly empty to Sydney where it would undergo “two to three days of deep cleaning” before returning to service, Joyce said.
“There is a specialist team that gets on the aircraft, even the cushions in every seat are taken off and cleaned. It’s quite extensive and we believe more than meets the needs to make sure that the aircraft is safe.”
After the government initially said Australian citizens and permanent residents would be charged about $1,000 each for transport and accommodation, those evacuated from Wuhan will not pay anything.
The Australian government is covering most of the cost of the charter from Wuhan, which will be operated at a loss by Qantas.
Qantas has announced it would bear the costs of flying Australians back to their home cities after they had finished their period of quarantine on Christmas Island.