Australians generally do not celebrate when the aircraft reaches asphalt, but there have been many celebrations in recent weeks, while Australians trapped by coronavirus blockades in Europe, Asia and South America have finally reached our shores.
Hiding in hotels or in the guest room with foreign relatives, prevented from going out to see exactly the things that took them away from home, it was traumatic, distressing and, in many cases, expensive. It is also a lesson in who you can count on for help in a crisis.
Although many have sought out the Australian government to intervene, the government cannot send the cavalry to free idle Australians. He can only do what a foreign government will allow, while, in the words of a Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade spokesman, “encourages Australians to take commercial options where they are still available and helps Australians most in need (such as those in need). remote locations or without a support network) who have faced sudden travel restrictions imposed locally and are unable to return home. “
According to DFAT, “More than 300,000 Australians have returned home since March 13, when the government advised all Australians to reconsider the need to travel abroad”.
When you’re stuck … what happens next
A Qantas flight with more than 200 Australians evacuated from the coronavirus epicenter of Wuhan, China, lands in Darwin. Photo: Helen Orr
When the coronavirus crisis began to unfold in China, an estimated 600 Australians were arrested for the blockade in Hubei province and its capital, Wuhan, the ground zero coronavirus. In early February, the Australian government organized two Qantas charter flights to quarantine most of these Australians.
In addition to a quick and decisive intervention, the government also paid the bill for the flights. But, according to a DFAT spokesman, “the government will only intervene to facilitate commercial flights home where there are no alternatives. The government was clear that the fully assisted departures provided to Australians in Wuhan and Yokohama were carried out for reasons of public health and are unlikely to be repeated. Australians should not rely on free flights. “
The commercial option was what happened in early April, when Qantas and Virgin operated repatriation flights from London, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Auckland, with standard air fares applied and the Australian government agreeing to jump into any deficit. Despite the coronavirus, the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand are relatively easy places to organize flights for those who want to return home. For thousands of Australians trapped in the most remote parts of the world, it has been a different story.
When Aurora Expeditions’ ship Greg Mortimer arrived on the coast of South America after its return trip from Antarctica, Chile and Argentina had closed their ports. Montevideo, Uruguay, offered a weak chance of landing, but more than half of the 217 on board tested positive for the new coronavirus and port authorities who were refusing to allow passengers to leave the ship. After intense work by the Australian government and its Uruguayan colleagues, and to the credit of the Uruguayan government, they agreed to release the passengers and took them by bus to the airport.
The repatriation flight, on April 11, operated by the flight operator Hi Fly, based in Lisbon, was one of the longest of all time on board an Airbus A340-300. On its nonstop flight from Montevideo to Melbourne, the four-engine A340 took 16 hours and 16 minutes to cover 6700 nautical miles on a large circular route that took it deep into southern latitudes.
In India, more than 1,000 Australians were jailed when the country’s government imposed its blockade that halted international flights in late March. In response to the growing despair of Australians looking for a way home, Australian expatriate and Simon Quinn, residing in New Delhi, created a Facebook support group, “Australians Stuck in India”, which has become the meeting place for those who want to leave.
Together with Brendon Hempel, managing director of the Victoria-based aircraft leasing operation, Stratos Group Aviation and Australian charter company Monarc Global, which designed an online ticketing system for evacuation flights, the group it rented a Lion Air aircraft to take Australians from Delhi to Melbourne via Denpasar, with another Lion Air flight from Chennai landing in Adelaide on April 20 and another from Mumbai which is due to take place soon.
Although the Australian High Commission in New Delhi was able to help with contacts and logistics, chartering a Lion Air aircraft would not have been an option for the Australian government. On its website, the High Commission notes “A Lion Air plane crashed fatally on October 29, 2018. Since then, Australian government employees and contractors in Indonesia have been instructed not to fly Lion Air or subsidiary airlines operating outside from Australia”. This was Lion Air flight 610, the first of two models of the Boeing 737 MAX that crashed killing everyone on board and which led to the subsequent grounding of all Boeing 737 MAX planes worldwide, a headache for Boeing that refuses to leave.
If you need to take a charter flight in an emergency, expect great success in your wallet. Australians trapped in Peru were charged more than $ 5,000 for a flight from Lima to Melbourne.
A charter flight from Uruguay lands at Melbourne airport. Photo: Darrian Traynor
How do you know when to press the eject button?
When the sun is shining, when you have a sunset date with a margarita by the pool, when you finally book a table at that restaurant that everyone is talking about, who wants to leave their vacation hotspot? There are stories about a viral outbreak happening somewhere in China that no one has ever heard of, but so what? Unless you are an infectious disease specialist, this will not raise an alarm. Nobody around here looks sick, the bars and pubs are in full swing, so what’s the problem?
A cautious traveler with a prolonged memory can search Google for “severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)”, the 2002-2004 coronavirus that also originated in China, and discover that the total number of deaths in the world was 774. And you it stays, but then the curtain falls. Trains and buses stop, airports close and you get caught.
The retrospective is 20 to 20. It’s easy to say “you should have left when you could”, but disasters don’t honk to let you in. Just like the volcanic eruptions that landed flights in Iceland and Bali, retaining thousands of travelers – or like the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami. In one moment, you are walking along a beach in Phuket, where the tide seems to be very far this morning. In the next, a giant wave of fists takes you to a whirling chaos that hits the coast, sucking trees, houses, buses and holiday resorts and stealing a quarter of a million lives.
Even travel operators with extensive experience, with global intelligence networks and diligent guides, are caught. “At Abercrombie & Kent, we had less than 24 hours to act when the Moroccan government announced that international flights would stop operating,” according to Sujata Raman, A&K regional director for Australia and Asia Pacific. “Working between the US, UK, Australia and our Moroccan team on land, we transport all guests from the country to Luton on a charter flight, with assistance for overnight and later connections from Heathrow the next day. A&K basically subscribed to the cost of the letter, with some nominal contribution from guests “.
Two young sisters wear masks in Rabat, Morocco. Photo: AP
If you are on a tour with a quality operator, while they cannot anticipate a crisis, you can expect them to do what is humanly possible to free you in double quick time. The same applies if you booked through a travel agent, but if you are alone, look for commercial operators to get it out before asking the government for help and be prepared to dig deep into your pocket.