In-depth: Can RAAF really bring stranded Aussies home?

written by Adam Thorn | September 17, 2020
A Royal Australian Air Force Dassault Falcon 7X aircraft at Defence Establishment Fairbairn, Canberra. (Defence)
A Royal Australian Air Force Dassault Falcon 7X aircraft at Defence Establishment Fairbairn, Canberra. (Defence)

In this cross-posting from The Conversation, Griffith University’s Peter Layton investigates the practicality of Labor leader Anthony Albanese’s suggestion that the RAAF could help stranded Aussies return home.

Amid mounting concern about Australians stranded overseas during COVID-19, Labor leader Anthony Albanese has offered a solution.

This week, he suggested using the RAAF VIP aircraft to bring people home. Albanese said these could bring the estimated 25,000 Australians stuck overseas, “100 at a time”.

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While the federal government has downplayed this suggestion, the pressure to do more to bring home Australians stuck overseas continues.

So, is it feasible to use the RAAF? What challenges might this pose?

What are the VIP aircraft?

The VIP fleet is operated by the air force to fly the governor-general, politicians and military leaders on official business when commercial flights are not suitable.

Albanese has homed in on the VIP fleet for obvious reasons: it’s currently sitting idle, the aircrews involved need to maintain their flying proficiency and Australians have always held a jaundiced view of the aircraft being simply another “pollie perk”.

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However, while all five aircraft are long range, only the two B737 Boeing Business Jets could conceivably carry the 100 people mentioned — and that’s after reconfiguring their normal VIP fit-out that accommodates 30 passengers. The other three aircraft, the brand new Dassault Falcon 7X executive jets, have room for only 14 passengers.

The five aircraft are good for the VIP role, but they are not large capacity international airliners. They are inherently a rather inefficient way to move large numbers of people.

What else could the RAAF use?

The RAAF does have seven large airliners in service. These are the aptly named KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport, a modified Airbus A330 airliner used for air-to-air refuelling of fighter aircraft and strategic airlift.

In the latter role, each aircraft can carry 270 passengers. For the past several years, the aircraft have been busy in the Middle East. But the last deployed KC-30A is just returning.

Allowing for some aircraft being under maintenance and others busy with ongoing training, the RAAF could potentially allocate two to three KC-30A aircraft to the “bringing Aussies home” task.

It’s possible but not straightforward

This would not be as simple as it sounds. The KC-30As are military aircraft, so decisions would need to be made whether to fly them into civil or military airfields overseas.

In the latter case, embarking passengers may be difficult. Moreover, being military aircraft (not scheduled civil air services), formal diplomatic approval would need to granted by the other countries involved.

There are further technical issues of guarding RAAF aircraft if they need to remain overnight at a foreign airfield, refuelling the aircraft on arrival, embarkation procedures and keeping the crews COVID–free.

There are also more mundane matters. like having aircraft stairs available and monitoring pilot duty hours — exhausted pilots are a flight safety hazard.

What about Qantas?

While this is technically feasible, there are also efficiency concerns.

Australians are scattered across the globe. They may need to find their way to major departure airport hubs — as diverting a large aircraft to pick up only a few passengers from a country may not be sensible. In addition, smaller countries may be unsure about letting a large, obviously military aircraft use their airfields.

It is in these smaller countries that Albanese’s idea of using the two B737 Business Jets might be more appropriate.

But if the RAAF has airliners, so too do the civil airlines. Qantas has many aircraft and crews available at the moment who, like the RAAF’s VIP crews, need to maintain their flying experience.

It’s true Australian taxpayers have already paid for the RAAF aircraft and crews, so the additional costs of picking up stranded Australians would be low. On the other hand, the airlines and their associated unions are in difficult circumstances. Should the RAAF do what Qantas could?

On Thursday, Qantas chief executive Alan Joyce told Radio National the airline was in talks with the federal government to subsidise flights home.

Finally, there’s the issue of quarantine. Only 4,000 Australians have been allowed back each week due to government imposed quarantine hotel restrictions. After a federal government push to the states, this is set to be increased to 6,000.

Large airliners, whether operated by the RAAF or commercial airlines, can bring many people home, but the cap on arrivals is a notable constraint.

This means the biggest benefit of such an approach might be not so much bringing more people home, but making the flights affordable and available. Today, with strict passenger limits, the airlines are charging high fees. This is a significant impediment to people returning, even with the Australian government offering loans to assist.

We could use the RAAF if we wanted to

So, while Albanese’s idea may be critiqued on its finer points, it is broadly doable. It’s perhaps a good if small example of politics in action.

At its core, when it comes to bringing home Australians in distress, it becomes a simple political question.

How should the government spend Australia’s taxpayer dollars?

Peter Layton is a visiting fellow from the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University.

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18 Comments

  • Shane

    says:

    Logical solution would be for the Government to charter QF aircraft with crews to major hubs, suggestion is there are 30000 Aussies in the UK alone.
    On return they arrive directly into RAAF bases set up with temporary accomodation for 14 day Quarantine. Post 14 days, QF and Virgin can then return people to home states. This would avoid cap issues altogether

  • Matthew Norris

    says:

    It’s not that hard we have a base in the UAE
    People from Europe area fly to the UAE
    Get onto the A330 fly to Christmas Island for 2 week mandatory quarantine period ( if people are of sound mind and health ).
    Yes a little more organizing than just that , but it’s not that hard
    ADF are pro’s at the stuff
    Easy

  • Gary

    says:

    Albo, socialist to the core and in a global pandemic suggests government do all the heavy lifting whilst Virgin and Qantas jets sit idle. Is this clown genuine or is he trying to be stupid intentionally….

  • Grant

    says:

    Bottom line , they COULD use RAAF aircraft. It COULD be done. Didn’t realise Aust. has 7 A330MRTT aircraft fully funded and paid for by Aust. taxpayer. If they are there and available, use them. They are a commercial Airbus A330 airliner that is built and configured for militaries as a “Multi-Role Tanker Transport” aircraft. Just like the Australian Armies’ 40 MRH90/NH90 helicopters COULD be used for fire-fighting / water bombing. Spain, Italy, Germany, Greece and other European militaries have these same choppers and have called on and used these military choppers for civilian fire-fighting duties on large wildfires

  • SB

    says:

    Albo’s suggestion was nothing but a political stunt, which makes no practical sense and is not feasible for many reasons. So sick and tired of politicians trying to score points at a time of national crisis that are unhelpful. For goodness’ sake, will you people work together to find a solution to an issue, rather than tearing people down for political points all the time? Some issues beg the need for bipartisanship. This is one of the biggest issues facing Australia since WWII, so what we need is for federal and state political parties to work together to find solutions for the betterment of the situation, to make suggestions that are sensible and have merit, and not just try to score points. Is it any wonder the Australian public is fed up with the major parties?

  • Ronnie

    says:

    Arrivals are capped because quarantine is capped due to so many in 14 days isolation (thousands at a time in several cities) and the control of these people, some of whom seem to think they can escape and do whatever they like in the community, even refuse to get tested and cleared before they leave, thus spreading the virus. We don’t want another Melbourne quarantine debacle.
    In the meantime Melbourne is not taking any repatriations and the other states have had to impose limits.
    You have to solve that problem first.

    Commercial airlines have been running and are able to run flights so there is no need to put in place the many RAAF procedures to run such flights. The Government should negotiate with the airlines to make seats available at reasonable cost but if you think that means the pre-Covid $1000 deals you’re dreaming. Those were loss-leaders and plane-fillers. Its a new world now.

  • Nicholas Paul

    says:

    What a pointless article!

    We all know planes are coming in near empty, Albanese was just grandstanding.

  • John Citizen

    says:

    With due respect to politicians who like to appear to be doing something and remain in the limelight, its far more practical to contract this job out to commercial airlines. Preferably Australian operated ones to give aussie jobs. If the rationale is to keep military crews current in their jobs, they already are doing this without getting involved.

  • Peter

    says:

    What an absolutely ridiculous thought bubble.

    We have a national carrier sitting around with planes parked everywhere, built for moving people around the world and banned from flying! It would make much more sense to contract to Qantas to do this.

  • Dave

    says:

    Oh my, it’s not about capacity on aircraft, it’s about narrow mindedness from politicians putting ridiculous arrival caps in place.
    One ME Airline is limited to 30 passengers a day on an aircraft with over 300 seats! Financially not viable to fly empty so allow people to come home!

  • Craig

    says:

    Really? “If” they could lift 100 pax at a time it would involve 250 trips!!!!!! It’s not about seat capacity into Australia as there are plenty of seats coming into Australia now using CX SQ EK etc etc. it’s a problem of the Govts restricting the the pax numbers to protect quarantine isn’t it. Stop pandering to Fumbelise.

  • Darren

    says:

    RAAF are not needed, Gov charters are not needed. Airlines are ready to take all the passengers home as soon as the Australian government removes the arrival caps.
    The arrival caps are a product of 14 day hotel quarantine, which is where the changes need to be made.
    COVID testing prior to flight then medical surveillance after arrival will remove this hotel quarantine method and allow everyone to come home!

  • rickster

    says:

    Yes indeed bring them back using RAAF or Virgin /Qantas flights, they may be able to house these returning passengers in some of our hard hit hotels who are feeling the impact of the downturn in our tourist industry.
    Get the Army to help with security as they are already on the government payroll.
    We need the political will to do this.

  • Td

    says:

    It’s not rocket science. Our own airlines ala Qantas or Virgin should be contracted to move Aussies home and work wing to wing with Qatar and Emirates etc ; combine capabilities for the better good of all. Move the distressed Aussie s first who have been caught out but by now it would include even the fortune seekers overseas.
    The last thing we want is to use RAAF assets which in reality aren’t configured for the effort required. Using a quarantined cruise liner would be more efficient. The routing of the aircraft also has to be considered heavily to maximize efficiency both ways with cargo and the costing of the flights per person could be recouped by the ATO similarly to HECS. (Or a better thing would be to convert some of the cost into hours helping our farmers out with labor that would normally come from overseas. Simple… spend time overseas waiting for a flight or come home get jobseeker and help the farmers for everyone’s benefit right here in Australia).
    We should all be reminded that the reason we are always in and out of lock down and limiting arrivals is because of the returning Aussies and issues in containing possible carriage of the disease and some non believers who think it’s a joke and not real.

  • An Interesting article, however certainly in terms of the United Kingdom stranded Australians, some of the arguments here against using the A330 MRTT aircraft don’t actually hold water.

    Basically in the United Kingdom, the RAF has its largest airbase at Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. RAF Brize Norton is the home of the UK Transport wing. Thus it also includes the AirBus MRTT aircraft operated by the RAF, effectively identical aircraft to the RAAF Airbus A300 MRTT. So ground handling equipment will be no problem such as Stairs. RAF Brize Norton also handles the embarkation and dis-embarkation point for all UK service personnel flying overseas. the RAF also has a dedicated repatriation centre with customs and Border force capabilities for clearances of departing or arriving passengers and also has been used to bring evacuees and civilian personnel for instance from Ascension Island and the Falklands.

    So this is an ideal departure point for the A330 MRTT that Australia employs.

    In terms of flying the RAAF A330 MRTT could fly from RAF Brize Norton to the joint US/RAF Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean a distance of 9,560 km. If this was too far, the RAAFA330MRTT could refuel at RAF Base Akrotiri in Cyprus, before flying onto Australia.

    Arrival points in Australia could be: at RAAF Learmonth, RAAF Base Curtin or RAAF Base Pearce (so not breaching WA rules) then flying onto Darwin or other ports eg RAAF Base Sale or Avalon.

    A number of flights organised and undertaken using this arrangement would immediately solve the problem with the 3,500 Australian citizens identified as especially vulnerable in accordance with the DFAT web site.

    In terms of destinations, returning travellers should be tasked with paying a typical return economy airfare about $1500 pre-pandemic as a contribution to their costs and perhaps the IMPEX facility used in the NT in Darwin as the Quarantine centre. This is basically pretty empty with a capacity of 3.500 per fortnight. Perhaps ADF and AUSMAT could provide the operational personnel.

  • Corey

    says:

    Look Qantas have the 787s, A330s and A380s. UK have a heap so A380 into the UK. Fill it up daily. Tech stop in Singapore. Then either fly them to Christmas Island and or onto hotels across the country. There is Cains, Gold Coast. There is also Darwin. I’m sure there are some additional hotels around the capitals which could be used. Heck even an A330/787 can fly into the Sunshine Coast now but would they have the capacity to take them on. It would mean we could operate up to the 6,000 per week but we could see that grow to say 7,000-8,000 maybe even to 10,000. So there for within 3-6 weeks 30,000 people could be bought back home. How ever the PM told them to GET HOME BEFORE THE BOARDERS ARE CLOSED. They where warned so why should we be helping them now?

  • Mick C

    says:

    Australia’s fleet of 7 KC-30s(A330 MRTT) consist of 6 in normal Airliner configuration and one as a VIP/Air Force 1 configuration.

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