Time is running out for Australians stranded overseas who want to return home, as commercial airlines continue to scale back or cancel international flights to curtail the spread of coronavirus.
Qantas, Jetstar and Virgin Australia have all announced they will be halting their international flights from the end of March, along with many foreign airlines.
The foreign minister, Marise Payne, has urged all citizens abroad to make their way back via commercial airlines but admits not everyone will be able to make it home.
“It may be necessary for some Australians to stay where they are overseas, and as far as practicable remain safe and comfortable,” she said.
Payne says the government will consider supporting Australian airlines to operate non-scheduled services to help return Australian in countries with few commercial travel options, but only if local governments allow it.
She also ruled out the possibility of charted rescue flights.
“We do not have plans for assisted departures, such as those conducted to the epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak, Wuhan in China and Japan,” said Payne
“Given the unprecedented scale of the global interruption to travel, the options outlined will not return all Australians travellers home.”
Hong Kong-owned Cathay-Pacific will cut services by 96% in April and May. Singapore Airlines and some Taiwanese airlines are technically operational but new restrictions by their respective governments prevent international passengers transiting through their airports, meaning these flights are off the cards for Australians.
After initially announcing it would cease all passenger flights, Emirates now says it will continue flights to Australia and several other destinations to help repatriate citizens.
Qantas is now running flights direct between London and Darwin, to avoid Singapore, for the remaining days of its international operations. “As we understand it is the first-ever nonstop flight from Darwin to London,” a spokesperson said.
British Airways also runs a flight to Sydney via Singapore; the status of this route is unclear.
Other possibilities for Australians wanting to leave the UK are Qatar Airways, through Doha, and Thai Airways, through Bangkok.
For those trying to return from the US, United Airlines said it would continue to fly between San Francisco and Sydney through May, though those plans could change.
But for Australians in some countries this is already not possible. Albania, Chile, Peru and Ecuador have closed their airports to commercial flights.
Internal lockdowns within countries are also making commercial travel difficult.
Carol Winters and Joan Cook, from Western Australia, found themselves stranded in Peru. They booked two $5,000 seats on chartered commercial flights from Cusco to Lima and then back to Australia.
But on the day of the flight, they got a call saying that it was now illegal to travel between towns in Peru, and they would not be able to take the two-hour bus from their hotel in Sacred Valley to Cusco.
“The military is guarding the street, so that’s quite disconcerting that they will be arrested and put in jail if they try to move,” said Winters’ daughter Charlie Caruso.
“I honestly am empathetic to everyone, everyone is stretched to the limit … the only thing that’s frustrated me is that it’s pretty poor communication [from the embassy] to the people who are stuck.”
Payne has conceded there are limitations to what embassies in some countries can do. “Many of our embassies are small and will be limited in what they can do directly, especially in countries that are imposing restrictions on movement,” she said.
Thirty-nine Australians from the Costa Luminosa cruise ship have been forced to isolate in Italy after disembarking, despite the Australian embassy in Rome organising transport by bus to France so they could catch a commercial flight home.
It is unclear what commercial travel options will be available for them to leave Europe in two weeks when their quarantine is complete.
The Qantas chief executive, Alan Joyce, has flagged the possibility of the national carrier running repatriation flights, sending its grounded planes and crews out to rescue Australians unable to get home.
“Because of the bans in and out of Australia, we have no demand for our international operations past the end of March,” he said. “We still have the aircraft, we still have the people, and if we can find locations where there are enough Australians to get them back on an aircraft, and the government believes that exists, then we will do that.”