The government has committed to funding another 100 Qantas repatriation flights over the next year.
The flag carrier has been using its 787 Dreamliners for the missions, which have a capacity to carry around 170 passengers each, meaning 17,000 more stranded Australians can return.
Tuesday night’s federal budget revealed the new flights will form part of a $119.9 million boost to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade’s consular program, which will include money for 46 additional staff.
The expansion, set to roll out over “the coming months”, coincides with the Howard Springs quarantine facility planning to double its capacity, from 850 to 2,000 per fortnight.
Howard Springs first took in large numbers of international travellers in October 2020 when it initially expanded its capacity.
The budget also revealed 18,800 Australians have flown home on 127 government-sponsored flights, out of a total of 45,400 returnees, most of whom would have flown with commercial airlines such as Qatar.
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 3,000 and Queensland to 1,000.
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.
Earlier this week, Prime Minister Scott Morrison reiterated that repatriation flights from India will continue after the temporary ban expires on 15 May.
PM Morrison was able to confirm the plans after a meeting with state premiers, indicating that as many as six flights could take place this month.
Last week, the federal government paused all flights from India, halting eight repatriations, and then made it a formal crime for anyone to attempt the trip, punishable with a $66,000 fine. It’s led to one 73-year-old Australian man in India launching a legal challenge to the decision.