Qantas plans to restart international flights under a government plan to bring home more of the estimated 25,000 Australians who remain stranded overseas – with some of the special repatriation flights landing at Darwin, which would become a dedicated quarantine hub for arriving passengers.
London and New Delhi are the first destinations for the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners, which will land at Darwin's RAAF Base. Travellers will then be taken to Howard Springs – a former worker's camp located 25km south of Darwin – to begin their mandatory 14-day stay.
Howard Springs was previously used to house Australians who were evacuated from Wuhan in the early stages of the pandemic, and also for passengers stranded on the Diamond Princess cruise ship after it docked in Japan.
A government subsidy will cover the essential operating costs of fuel on these charter flights, while Qantas says that "all pilots and cabin crew working on these flights have volunteered for them."
Three Qantas flights from London will depart on 22 October, 7 November and 11 November, with one-way economy fares at $2,150 per person (excluding taxes, which lift the fare to $2,560).
Travel on the legs from Sydney and Perth to London – with departures on 19 October, 4 November and 8 November – will also be available at commercial rates and can be booked through Qantas.
Four Qantas flights from New Delhi will depart on 26 October, 9 November, 23 November and 27 November, at one-way economy fares of $1,500 per person.
Passengers will also need to pay for their 14-day quarantine, which at Howard Springs is currently set at $2,500 per person and $5,000 for families of two or more. Travellers in financial hardship will be offered government loans.
There'll also be one Qantas repatriation flight from Johannesburg to Australia, which will be priced at $1,750 – the airline says the date of this flight is "to be advised" and its arrival port "is being worked through", while "additional flights to other destinations may be announced in due course."
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade will contact Australians in vulnerable positions who have registered with the department in the United Kingdom, South Africa and India.
Qantas will carry 150 passengers on each flight; the airline says all passengers must undergo a Covid-19 tested at least 48 hours prior to departure "and must test negative in order to board the aircraft", as well as wearing a mask throughout the flight.
Crew will have additional protections including personal protective equipment, in-flight service will be scaled back, and there will be ‘crew only’ areas at the front and back of the aircraft.
Qantas operated more than a hundred government-supported flights across April-June 2020 under the same arrangement, with special charter services from India, Japan, Hawaii, South America and South Africa alongside regular flights from Auckland, Hong Kong, London and Los Angeles.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said today that the Howard Springs quarantine facility would be operational until at least March 2021, and would addd "around 5,000 people over that time" to the number of inbound travellers which Australia can accept.
Morrison also said the government's medical expert panel was "considering options for home isolation".