Australia Relaxes Inbound Traveller Limits – Is Enough Being Done?

Empty airport

Friday’s meeting of the Australian National Cabinet agreed to increase the cap of Australians returning home from roughly 4,000 inbound travellers per week to a little under 6,000 per week, on a scaled increase.

What’s the current state of play?

The Australian hotel quarantine system is managed by each state & territory government. After the second wave of COVID-19 that ravaged Melbourne was linked to mismanagement in hotel quarantine, most other states expressed concerns that their own resources could not safely handle the amount of travellers returning.

As a result, each state & territory imposed limits on inbound traveller numbers and restricted arrivals to come through selected international airports:

Total number of arrivals per week: 3,975. It’s important to note there are some exemptions to quarantine requirements (such as airline crew), so the total number of actual passengers arriving into Australia on a weekly basis is likely higher than the quarantine cap.

The new plan from National Cabinet

In a phased approach, New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland & Western Australia will increase the total amount of inbound arrivals to a total of just over 5,500 with further arrangements being made to increase this to be as high as 6,000.

New South Wales will take an additional 500 passengers per week, with South Australia accepting an additional 100 arrivals. This will be in place by 28 September.

Queensland & Western Australia are taking a two-tier approach with both states each accepting 200 additional weekly arrivals by 28 September, and raising this number to 500 in total increase by 05 October (QLD) and 12 October (WA).

To simplify this, let’s take a look at the updated table of what each state will be accepting when the new plan is fully operational:

Total number of arrivals per week: 5,575.
*Prior to the pandemic, Hobart Airport did not and to this day still doesn’t currently service any international commercial flights
^National Cabinet concluded that ‘facilitation of special commercial services‘ would be carried out in South Australia, Tasmania, Northern Territory & Australian Capital Territory; which will likely see this published number exceeded some weeks. There is no indication of what this may entail.

Why does this matter?

Sydney Morning Herald recently confirmed with DFAT that roughly 23,000 Australians have expressed interest in returning home. Unfortunately not all Australians were or are currently able to simply ‘pack everything up’ and return home immediately, with many having family, careers & other binding commitments with other countries. Clearly, continuing on the current cap of roughly 4,000 would take months and into 2021 to allow all Australians to return home.

However for Australians trying to return immediately the situation is even more complicated. The current passenger limit has seen airlines having to severely reduce passenger capacity on all flights. To demonstrate the easiest example; an airline like Qatar Airways who operate a 14 hour flight from Doha to Sydney cannot make a profit from passenger services by carrying so few passengers, a requirement they must strictly follow to not exceed the passenger cap. As a business they need to make these flights as commercially viable as possible, hence we hear stories of passengers needing to purchase business or first class tickets to increase their chances of being accepted on board.

The airline conundrum:
Maintain air links, or cut costs?

Don’t be too quick to criticise the airlines for prioritising business & first class passengers. An easy alternative for them is to conclude the Australian market is too difficult and too expensive to manage at the moment and abandon all services, leaving thousands more stranded overseas especially those in far away places like Europe, The Americas & Africa.

The routes in green show flights around 14 hours in length, the yellow around three hours. All of the above routes can only accept a similar number of passengers, making these green journeys far more expensive and loss-making for long haul carriers.

Airlines like Qatar Airways, Emirates & United Airlines, who have all continued to fly to Australia nearly uninterrupted, have used their extensive global networks to get passengers from far-flung places back to Australia via their hubs in the Middle East & North America. Despite flying passengers across the world, with the leg into Australia at over 14 hours, they can only carry the same amount of passengers as a plane coming from New Zealand or Papua New Guinea, only a couple of hours long and nowhere near the same costs to an airline.

New Zealand’s strength may have a role in easing Australian backlogs

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has floated the idea of allowing Australians & New Zealanders in COVID-free areas of New Zealand to enter Australia quarantine free, a lot like how some domestic Australia travel currently operates.

According to the Prime Minister in Friday’s press conference, approximately 15% of all international arrivals are currently from New Zealand. Under the increased cap, this would take about 836 places in hotel quarantine per week.

By removing the hotel quarantine for arrivals from COVID-free areas of New Zealand, such as the entirety of the South Island, this will free up more space for returning travellers from the rest of the world and therefore clear the backlog of Australians desperate to get home sooner.

Don’t get too excited if you’re reading this in Australia and wanting to brush off your passport – this is not the much hyped Trans-Tasman bubble which I’m sure you’ve all read about in the media. The current proposal is for one-way traffic to allow Australians & eligible Kiwis to enter Australia. The New Zealand government would be under no obligation to reciprocate these proposed changes and may continue their hard border stance to all countries including Australia for an indefinite period.

It’s reasonable to speculate that this model will be used as a dry run to open up bilateral arrangements with countries and regions with no community COVID transmission, to allow some international movement to recommence. An example of a similar agreement already in place is Singapore, where they recently opened ‘fast lanes’ for travellers to move between certain countries and specific regions. We’ll be watching these developments closely with a keen eye.

There is still a lot of water to go under the bridge for this proposal to get over the line. Western Australia & Tasmania still have hard borders for domestic Australian travellers, you cannot get into these states without special exemptions. Queensland continues to have controversial hard borders with New South Wales and Victoria, however on Friday announced plans to lift restrictions for travellers flying in from the ACT.

With so much in-fighting among the Australian states and territories, it’s currently difficult to imagine how Australian state premiers will permit international arrivals to land without a quarantine period anytime soon. But hey this is the ‘COVID era’, so anything is possible by this time next week!

A quick cheat sheet to the current interstate border restrictions for inbound domestic travellers. Some exemptions apply in all cases. Correct as of 20 September and likely to change every fifteen seconds.

The Northern Territory allow travellers from all jurisdictions to enter, however if you have been in a declared hotspot in the last 14 days you must complete a self-funded quarantine. Hotspots are defined by the NT government & can be declared for specific locations in other states and cities. If you’ve spent some time outside a hotspot then you can apply to have your quarantine reduced – I told you it’s complicated!

Long story short…

Australia’s positive move to allow more of its own citizens to return home is a welcome boost to many currently overseas trying to get home. The cautious border approach on the health front has cascading consequences resulting in extremely limited flight options and seats being sold at many times the standard airfare to make the airlines’ ends meet.

Let’s hope National Cabinet continue to provide out of the box, practical solutions to get our own citizens who want to return back on home soil while ensuring that hotel quarantine can be facilitated in a safe manner. The proposal of quarantine free arrivals from COVID-free areas of New Zealand is a fantastic start, however we need our state premiers to see eye-to-eye on domestic issues first before quarantine free travel can work on an international scale.

Let me know what you think! Should the National Cabinet be doing more to get Australians home? Do airlines have a moral responsibility to move people to where they need to be during a global crisis at a passenger friendly cost? Have your say below!

Feature photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

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