The industry body representing international airlines has said new quarantine arrangements for crew staying overnight in Australia are “chaotic” and lead to staff arriving in hotels without being able to eat a meal.
The Board of Airline Representatives of Australia (BARA) has also hinted that these “operational challenges” along with “spiralling costs” meant airlines may soon pull out of flights repatriating Australians.
It comes after NSW, and many other states, changed the rules in January to ask international crews to quarantine at state-managed hotels and take a COVID test at the airport. Previously, airlines could organise their own transport and accommodation, so long as the details were shared with authorities.
The rules for international crew were introduced following NSW Police fining 13 crew members $1,000 each for allegedly visiting local businesses.
In a new statement, BARA said that while it understands the importance of Australia’s COVID measures, the implementation of quarantine has led to “chaotic outcomes” for airlines, passengers and staff.
“BARA has seen a number of concerns raised over the strain it is causing on the mental health and wellbeing of staff involved in hotel quarantine,” the organisation said.
“At an operational level, airlines continue to raise issues of concern over the organisation and delivery of arrangements for aircrew. They include delays at the airport and late arrival at hotels, with the hotel operator at times then unable to provide meals.
“The efficiency of safe aircraft operations must be supported by properly rested aircrew, basic dietary provisions and efficient travel to and from the airport to the crew hotels.
“When crew testing was introduced, it created problems for airlines because of the lack of clear guidance over what a state health authority would do to an airline crew member who tested positive for COVID-19 in Australia. BARA continues to see reports of a lack of adequate testing capacity at airports, leading to ongoing delays and problems for all staff involved in hotel quarantine.
“A holistic approach to supporting the commercial viability of a minimum network of flights and the wellbeing of staff is needed, as industry participants face what is one of the most difficult periods of the pandemic to date.”
BARA also hinted that increasingly difficult conditions, exacerbated by arrival caps that limit the number of passengers allowed on incoming flights, meant many are threatening to stop flying.
“A number of members have told BARA they cannot be expected to keep operating passenger flights under such poor commercial and operational conditions,” it said.
“The Australian and state governments need to decide whether they want to maintain a minimum international network and level of commercial viability for airlines.”
It continued that many costs incurred by airlines are charged on aircraft weight and distance travelled, meaning that effective per-passengers costs have increased by up to 600 per cent.
“Large backlogs of costs are mounting across the airports, with delays in travel bubbles continuing to suppress available passenger volumes to recover incurred costs. Members have reported to BARA that a number of airport operators have provided some relief on staff office and passenger lounge rents, which is appreciated,” BARA said.
“However, they also report that one airport operator has consistently sought rent increases of between 10-40 per cent, which highlights the differences in attitude to international airlines. With state governments now providing crew quarantine hotels and transport, any passed through costs are often much higher compared to that previously negotiated directly by airlines.
“This highlights how many cost increases are outside the control of airlines, and an assumption that these costs will be borne by airlines.”
In November, BARA said most airlines stopped selling tickets to stranded Australians “months ago” due to the country’s international arrival caps.
The organisation added that 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.
NSW is currently taking the vast bulk of returned citizens, with Sydney quarantine hotels now accepting 3,000 entrants per week. The next highest is Queensland, taking 1,000.
The developments come after Australia’s arrival caps in February returned to their previously higher December 2020 levels, which were cut at the start of 2021 following a second COVID cluster in Sydney.
The January temporary cuts formed part of the biggest overhaul of the quarantine program since its inception, and also included a provision for passengers to wear masks on all domestic and international flights; for hotel staff to be tested daily and for ex-pats to require a negative result before boarding a repatriation flight.
Arrival caps were introduced in July and sat at 4,000, before increasing to 6,500 at the end of 2020 and then decreasing to just over 4,000 in January 2021.
This week Victoria also confirmed it would restart its program, and will initially accept 800 passengers a week.