Last month Australia introduced caps on international arrivals, as part of the country’s lockdown measures. This has resulted in nightmare situations arising where dozens of passengers are being bumped off repatriation flights at the last minute. In response, the Australian High Commission has issued a warning about the risks involved in booking these flights, saying that no charter flights are approved between South Africa and Australia at present.

Introduced on July 13, the Australian passenger cap limits weekly international arrivals into Perth to 525 people. Only 500 passengers may enter Brisbane weekly and only 450 passengers may arrive in Sydney per day. No international arrivals are presently permitted into Melbourne.

Owner of Travallure, Karin Steenkamp, reports that in the past week 16 of her passengers have been bumped off Emirates and Qatar Airways repatriation flights to Australia at the last minute. Some of them are stranded with no homes to return to in South Africa.

“A big part of the problem is the dishonest way that airlines are dealing with the problem and how they are bumping economy-class passengers in favour of business and first-class passengers. Last week I had a family booked to travel on the same flight with the mom and kids booked in economy class and the dad in first class. At the last minute the passengers were notified that the mom and kids could not travel as the “flight was no longer operational” but when the passenger called about the dad’s first class seat the airline advised us that everything was still in order for his flight,” she explains.

Owner of Tamarin Bay Travel, Melanie Bishop, complains that passengers paying outrageous fares on repatriation flights were offered no local support by airlines. One of her clients, a mother, who was booked to travel to Australia to join her husband, had sold her house and travelled by car up to Johannesburg with their toddler for the flight. At 01h00 on the morning of departure, the airline called to advise her that she and her child would be unable to travel. Another of Melanie’s passengers is a New Zealand citizen who urgently needs to return home because she is 26 weeks pregnant. Despite Melanie sending a doctor’s letter to the airline advising how crucial it was that the passenger travel immediately, this passenger was also bumped off her flight at the last minute. Melanie says the airlines have not managed to rebook either of these families who are still stranded in Johannesburg at the time of publication.

Gita Kamath, the Australian High Commissioner in Pretoria, sent out a communication on August 14 to Australians, warning them against booking repatriation charter flights between South Africa and Australia. In particular, she cautions against sharing personal information and committing funds for these flights.

“There are no charter flights currently approved to fly between South Africa and Australia. Due to caps on the numbers of passengers coming into Australian airports from overseas, flights to Australia must go through a process of government approval. On August 8, the Prime Minister announced that these passenger caps will remain in place until October 24 and will continue to be reviewed by National Cabinet. I do understand that this will be a disappointment to those of you wishing to return home. Please keep in mind though that the flight restrictions and difficulties securing seats are issues affecting everyone wishing to return to Australia from all over the world,” said the High Commissioner in the release.

She encourages passengers holding bookings to keep in touch with the airline involved, adding that SAA, which has released an expression of interest for a flight to Sydney on August 25, has neither formally sought nor received government approvals for this flight to occur. She says while there are some limited options available for indirect flight routes back to Australia, she understands that only business-class seats are available on many of these flights.

“Please note that the Australian government has no involvement in which passengers are given priority for flights; this is purely a matter for airlines. There is no priority list that is shared with us and we are unable to intervene with airlines. If you have specific circumstances, please approach the airline directly. Please note that there are no Australian government-facilitated flights, and you make bookings entirely at your own risk. We stress that you should carefully consider your own personal circumstances, and the risks of making bookings. There is no guarantee that flights may not be cancelled, rescheduled or delayed. Flights, bookings, and government regulations can change with no notice,” she adds.

Airlines respond

Qatar Airways, in response to Travel News’s questions, sent the following statement: “Due to the restrictions on passengers travelling to Australian destinations, Qatar Airways can only carry a limited number of passengers per day to certain destinations. While some government exemptions apply to these numbers, we must strictly adhere to these restrictions. Qatar Airways analyses each flight based on a range of criteria, including compassionate and medical requirements, connecting flights, booking class, party size and commercial value. In order to ensure the continued viability of our operations to Australia, commercial value of tickets sold must also be taken into consideration to be able to operate each flight. Each passenger’s case is treated on an individual basis, regardless of what cabin class they have booked. We have been assisting many passengers with emergency/compassionate issues as first priority to help them get on a flight to Australia as soon as possible. We continue to work closely with our passengers to find alternative flights if they are unable to travel on their original intended flight.”

Emirates too responded with a statement: “We continue to follow the Australian Government’s directive to restrict capacity on all inbound international flights until October 24… we have adopted a balanced approach to seat allocation to minimise disruption and continue to accommodate passengers across all of our cabins on flights… In most cases a large portion of our seats are allocated to economy-class travellers with the remainder allocated to first and business-class travellers. This proportion varies for each flight and depends on several factors, including connectivity beyond Dubai and size of groups travelling together.”

Travel News contacted SAA for comment but had not heard back at time of publication.