Australians abroad trying to return home were dealt a huge blow after Emirates suspended all flights to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
The carrier said the decision was taken for “operational reasons” but it is likely to be related to the national cabinet’s decision this month to significantly reduce quarantine arrival caps.
Emirates was one of only five airlines – including Qatar, Singapore, Etihad and Japan – flying to Australia on a commercial basis, with ad-hoc government supplemented Qantas flights, too.
The carrier was unique in that it flew daily from the transport hub of Dubai to Sydney and Melbourne, as well as providing five flights a week to Brisbane and also flights to Perth.
“Australia remains an important market for Emirates,” the business said in a statement. “We continue to serve Perth with twice-weekly flights and we are working hard to prepare for the resumption of services to our other points.”
It came after Prime Minister Scott Morrison earlier this month announced that the country’s caps – which had increased from 4,000 in July 2019 to nearly 6,500 by the end of the year – would be reduced until at least 15 February 2021.
There will now be a weekly limit of 1,505 arrivals in NSW, 512 in Western Australia and 500 in Queensland. South Australia will keep its 60 weekly limit and Victoria will maintain its current 50 per cent reduced capacity.
The rules restricting the number of Australians who could fly home at any one time were first introduced in July to regulate the flow of people arriving into government quarantine facilities and have been extended multiple times.
Critics have long argued that decision has stopped Australians abroad being able to return home by reducing availability and increasing prices.
The move in January to lower the caps came as part of the biggest overhaul of the quarantine program since its inception, designed to prevent new ‘mutant’ variants of COVID leaking out into the community.
Australian Aviation reported repeated interventions last year from the industry body representing international carriers hinting airlines could soon pull out of flying to Australia altogether.
In particular, in December, the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia (BARA) said most airlines stopped selling tickets to stranded Australians “months ago”.
BARA said official waiting lists don’t tell the whole picture of how many Australians are stranded abroad. It has previously estimated the actual figure to be as high as 100,000.
“The number of Australians overseas seeking to return home before the end of 2020 but now without an option to do so far exceeds the immediate [official] waiting list of at least 10,000,” BARA said. “This is because to meet the tight international passenger arrival caps, which were implemented with very short notice, many international airlines were forced to stop selling tickets some months ago.
“This means that the estimated immediate waiting list of 10,000 Australians overseas after airlines have booked flights to the permitted caps, does not include those who have been unable to book a ticket or join a waiting list.”
BARA also called for Australia to allocate domestic quarantine hotel rooms to overseas arrivals when more domestic borders reopen.
“Based on the data available to BARA, the re-opening of domestic borders could permit an additional 2,000 international arrivals each week through the reallocation of domestic quarantine capacity to international arrivals,” said executive director Barry Abrams.