Qantas is set to increase its monthly repatriations flights from eight to 20 per month, Australian Aviation can reveal.
The expansion, set to roll out over “the coming months”, coincides with the Howard Springs quarantine facility also planning to double its capacity, from 850 to 2,000 per fortnight.
Qantas made the announcement in a memo to staff, which also revealed it has now operated more than 200 international flights to countries such as India, UK, France and South Africa.
The flag carrier has been using its 787 Dreamliners for the missions, which have a capacity to carry around 170 passengers each, and often land at the NT facility.
Howard Springs first took in large numbers of international travellers in October 2020 when it initially expanded its capacity and has so far helped more than 4,600 stranded Australians return home.
The news comes 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. It meant NSW returned to its weekly cap of 3,010 and Queensland to 1,000.
The current cap levels, in place until 30 April, are:
- Adelaide: No more than 530 arrivals per week;
- Brisbane: No more than 1,000 arrivals per week (with additional capacity of 300 passengers per week for the return of vulnerable Australians);
- Melbourne: International passenger arrivals suspended until further notice;
- Perth: From 1 March 2021 to 25 March 2021: No more than 900 arrivals per week; then from 26 March 2021: No more than 1,025 arrivals per week;
- Sydney: From 15 February 2021: No more than 430 arrivals per day;
- Individual arrangements for the ACT, the Northern Territory and Tasmania settled between the Commonwealth and those jurisdictions.
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.
The federal government’s move to increase numbers comes after Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews in February suggested the country needed to have a “cold, hard discussion” of how best to keep new variants of COVID out of the country, which could include allowing fewer Australians abroad to return home.
“With this UK strain – and we haven’t even got on to South Africa yet, because it’s just as bad – should we be halving the total number of people coming home?” said Premier Andrews. “Or should it be a much smaller program that’s based on compassionate grounds?
“That’s a conversation we should have, particularly given that we’re so close to being able to vaccinate those who, if they get this, will become gravely ill.”
Health Minister Greg Hunt appeared to criticise the statement, arguing Australia has a “profound human duty” to help Australians abroad return home.