Chartered flights that are available to bring stranded and desperate Australians home have been rejected by the Morrison government, the operator has told The New Daily.
Since June the federal government has refused to let Australians stranded overseas board returning flights to Australia after they have been chartered to collect foreign nationals here.
Melbourne-based travel company Gaura Travel has been chartering an average of two flights every week to airlift stranded Indian citizens out of Australia.
“Every month we organise eight charter flights from Australia to India,” Gaura managing director Abhishek Sonthalia said.
Those charter flights pick up passengers from Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane and return to India, meaning their return leg could be ferrying Australians to reunions with friends and families.
The claim comes as the Morrison government – which had committed to having stranded Australians home by Christmas – promised on Saturday to organise 20 more flights to collect some of the 37,000 Australians overseas.
That move followed airline Emirates said it would suspend all flights to-and-from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.
Emirates’ snap announcement left hundreds of Australian frustrated as their hopes of getting home were dashed.
But Gaura Travel insists it could bring hundreds of Australians home in the next few months – but only if the government accepted what Mr Sonthalia described as a longstanding offer.
Mr Sonthalia said he has sent multiple requests to the Department of Home Affairs since June to ask if empty flights could be used to transport Australians.
That offer has been repeatedly rejected, he said, adding that he has organised 35 charters so far.
“We have innumerable times applied for permission to do the same [for Australians, as for Indians] but have always been denied,” he said.
The departments of Home Affairs, and Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) did not respond to The New Daily’s questions before deadline.
Gaura Travel has flights organised through January and February, and Mr Sonthalia said they could easily “convert our charters so that people can travel both ways”.
Pregnant with no way home
The snap decision by Emirates on Saturday to discontinue flights came in response to the federal government’s slashing of arrival quotas.
The decision to cut arrivals means the number of Australians allowed to re-enter their homeland will drop from 6700 per week to just 4200.
Kristy Charman, who is pregnant and facing a narrowing window in which she can fly safely from the United Arab Emirates, said her husband was recently made redundant.
The couple had been booked on one of Emirates’ now-cancelled flights.
“I’m 42 years old and 15 weeks pregnant with twins,” she told TND.
“My Dubai residency visa and medical coverage will expire on February 8.
“We are devastated with the new caps [on international arrivals] to say the least, because we are now in a really tough position and are unsure what to do.”
Medical coverage is too expensive for them to stay in the UAE – a single ultrasound recently cost the couple $600 – so they are hunting frantically for alternatives.
One measure of their desperation is that they are considering flying to New Zealand in the hope that it will bring them one step closer to Perth, their home town.
“I have until mid-March to travel, so unless a miracle occurs the latest caps by the government have pretty much stopped any chance of us making it home in time,” Ms Charman said.
Monash University aviation expert Greg Bamber warned more flights could be cut in coming weeks as airlines respond to the government’s cap on arrivals.
“More airlines might stop flying to Australia unless the federal government is more proactive about trying to support airlines in bringing Australians home,” Professor Bamber said.
Airlines have been devastated by the pandemic and by governments closing borders and restricting passenger numbers, he said.
“Internationally, in contrast to Australia, other governments have done much more to support airlines and their workers during the pandemic,” Professor Bamber said.
The government’s caps on international arrivals have separated some families for the best part of an entire year.
Scott Watkins is likewise stuck in Manila.
When Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for Australians to come home Mr Watkins was in the middle of a three-month Philippine lockdown so strict he couldn’t even leave his house.
He was meant to fly out on Cathay Pacific, which cancelled his flight because of the caps.
Now, he has to wait 30 days for his refund so he can afford to book a new flight.
Money is a problem, my health is a problem, I’m so stressed,” Mr Watkins said.
“I really feel let down.”
Mr Watkins is mentally preparing himself for the fact he might not be able to get home for what he fears could be another 12 months. Meanwhile, he is making Australian custards to ward off homesickness.
“Anything under 12 months will be a bonus,” he said. “What do I do? I can’t go home.”