Tens of thousands of people have been locked out of Western Australia indefinitely, after the state announced it would delay its reopening of international and domestic borders, airlines say.
According to the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia (BARA), which represents 34 airlines and 90 per cent of Australia’s international passenger traffic, there are now an estimated 20,000 Western Australians stranded overseas, with few options available for making their way home.
Around 6,000 of these have left Western Australia to go overseas, since the federal government lifted its blanket ban on outbound travel in November 2021, with many intending to return following the 5 February reopening date.
It comes as Western Australia Premier Mark McGowan announced last week that his government would no longer reopen its domestic and international borders on 5 February as previously planned.
McGowan said the decision was made due to the Omicron variant being far more transmissible than its predecessors. No new date has been set for the border opening.
Instead, WA will continue to welcome just 265 arrivals into the state per week from overseas, sending each into hotel quarantine.
At that rate, it will take around 18 months to repatriate all 20,000 Australians still looking to make it home to WA, BARA said.
BARA executive director Barry Abrams said that airlines were reporting high load factors on international flights due to arrive at Perth Airport on or after 5 February, with “hundreds of passengers” booked on each flight.
Now, airlines will have to dramatically reduce their capacity in order to remain in line with WA’s strict overseas passenger caps.
“It should not again fall to the international airlines to choose which few of the 20,000 people can return to Western Australia over the coming months,” Abrams said.
“All of these passengers will have legitimate reasons for returning, which generates considerable stress between them and international airline staff.”
Abrams stated that the West Australian government should “accept accountability” for the number of Australians it has left with few options for returning home, and “obtain information about its stranded citizens”.
“It could then choose who can return each week based on its assessment of the circumstances faced by individuals and families and allocate the available hotel quarantine places through its G2G Pass.”
Abrams also questioned a suggested tactic by the government, to see West Australians fly into other states, and then travel domestically into WA and complete two-weeks home quarantine, as is standard for other domestic arrivals – however, current border restrictions dictate that all domestic arrivals need to be provided with an exemption to enter the state.
“The recent announcement over home quarantine arrangements via entry into other states such as New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia is difficult to understand.
“Why cannot the passengers simply fly direct into Western Australia and then home quarantine? And why have hotel quarantine at all then?”
Meanwhile, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce has said that in the first week of WA’s planned border reopening, the airline already had over 20,000 people booked to travel to and from the state.
“That was stories of grandmothers who haven’t seen grandkids, parents that haven’t seen their kids for two years … so I think you could imagine the disappointment that that caused,” he told 6PR Radio.
Joyce also said the border backflip has meant that Qantas may look to commit to extending its Darwin-London route, or risk losing its direct links to the UK altogether.
An announcement could come in the coming days, as the airline works on its “backup plan” for both domestic and international operations to WA, Joyce said.
“Without knowing when we can assume the borders will open up again, what do we do and how do we plan for that?” he asked.
“For example, the Perth-London service that we were planning to restart in April … without the certainty of knowing that WA will be open in April, the question we have is: do we keep it going over Darwin?
“Because we need to make a commitment to Darwin, because hotels are filling up … we need to base crew in whatever port we are going to be operating from, and if we lose that option, we won’t have a London service.”