International airlines flying into Australia are having to bump passengers, often with little notice, in order to meet strict daily passenger caps set for airports still accepting flights from overseas.
The passenger limits introduced to alleviate pressure on quarantine facilities in Australia have meant airports like Brisbane can only accept 70 passengers per day, while services bringing Australians back to Sydney are limited to as few as 30 travellers per flight.
While the passenger caps have seen a surge in the cost of airfares into Australia – the cost of a one-way flight from Doha to Sydney on Qatar Airways is $3,729 in economy, a class of seat booked out until 9 August – some economy travellers who are concerned they will be bumped due to their cheaper seats are upgrading to business class tickets.
However airlines including Qatar Airways denied passengers with cheaper tickets would be more likely to be rescheduled, telling the Guardian that passenger lists were based on a range of criteria, including compassionate and medical requests.
Originally introduced earlier this month “in order to manage and maintain quarantine arrangements” at hotels, the caps have shrunk from their original limits, now allowing 350 arrivals per day at Sydney, 75 per day at Perth and 70 per day at Brisbane.
Melbourne airport remains closed to international visitors, with incoming capacity for Adelaide and Canberra assessed on a case-by-case basis.
Between seven to eight international flights are scheduled to land each day at Sydney Airport. However, the cap per flight could increase if some scheduled services do not go ahead.
“The amount allocated to each airline for each flight varies depending on how many flights are operating on each day but within a total daily cap,” a spokeswoman for the federal Department of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development said.
“Airlines have the ability to request more than their per-flight passenger allocation on a particular day if there is any spare capacity available on that particular day.”
She also said airlines were required to enforce the limits on their own services at the point of departure overseas, and that while Border Force officials checked arrival numbers, no fines or breaches had been issued since the caps came into effect.
A Qatar Airways spokeswoman told the Guardian it “analyses each flight on a case-by-case basis to ensure we facilitate onward travel to the final destination for as many passengers as possible.”
“The passenger list is continually assessed and based on a range of criteria, including compassionate and medical requests, connecting flights, booking class, party size etc. We continue to work closely with our passengers to find alternative flights if they are unable to travel on their original intended flight,” the spokeswoman said.
An Etihad spokesman said government advice had indicated the caps would be in place until at least mid-August, and that they had been told to operate to a 30 passenger per flight limit into Sydney. The airline continues to fly a passenger jet as a freight-only service on its Abu Dhabi to Melbourne route.
A Singapore Airlines spokesman said “should any of our flights have a booked capacity over the government arrival cap, we will work with affected customers to re-accommodate them accordingly”.
While Australians’ wishing to travel overseas still require a government exemption to exit the country for specific reasons, the limits on incoming international passengers affect Australians stranded overseas attempting to return home during the pandemic.
Sydney mother Luisa Fryday is concerned the cap could separate her from her husband and two children.
The German-born, Australian permanent resident was granted a travel exemption on 12 July, to visit her terminally ill father in Munich. She booked her return economy ticket with Qatar Airways later that day, scheduled to leave on 22 July. The return booking cost $2,400.
After reading in online forums that airlines had been prioritising business travellers, Fryday called up Qatar Airways to seek assurances about her return ticket – booked for 28 July – but was told they were not allowed to pass on information about their expected limits and could not give her a guarantee she would be allowed to board her scheduled return flight.
Concerned she could not be guaranteed a return date and potentially separated from her children, Fryday chose to upgrade her return leg ticket to business class – for an additional $6,400 – but acknowledges there is no certainty in her scheduled return date.
“[It] cost a small fortune but I need to get back to my family … This is also the last time I will probably see my dad,” she said of her father, who has stage four brain cancer.
She is concerned if passenger limits reduce further and she is not allowed to fly on her scheduled return leg, she could be stuck in Germany into September or until Australia’s quarantine capacity stabilises.
“I’m still feeling very uncertain about coming back because if business class has 45 seats and they are all booked, who will decide who is not flying that day?” Fryday said.