coronavirus UK
(Image: EPA/WILL OLIVER)

As the government lifts its controversial travel ban on flights from India this weekend, it is worth noting the Australians stranded in other countries still clamouring to get home.

But, in the case of those in the UK, are they?

It seems that Qantas is currently struggling to fill seats on government-facilitated flights from London to Darwin. An Australian citizen living in London who had finally booked a flight in mid-May received an email from Qantas detailing the low numbers.

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“Please note due to the lack of sales across the flights scheduled from London for mid-May, we are merging the flights on both 12 and 15 May with the flight departing London on 16 May to Darwin,” the email read.

A few days later a follow-up email noted that there were still seats available for sale on the May 16 flight, despite being one of the only options at normal commercial airfare rates. Even then the prices are still high at $2000 one way but considerably less than the $15,000 or more that some other airlines charged, providing only a few dozen seats, mainly in business class.

I asked the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) about why they were struggling to fill flights given how many Australians were desperate to get home.

“Around 35,000 people are currently registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade as being overseas and wanting to return,” a spokesperson replied. “This number changes regularly according to people’s circumstances.”

They noted that since the start of the pandemic it has helped 18,800 Australians return on 127 government-facilitated flights. It is understood that of the 35,000 registered, about 4300 are in the UK. 

Initially the seats are offered on a case-by-case basis to vulnerable Australians, prior to being made publicly available if seats remain.

On April 16, the Australian High Commission in the UK announced six government-facilitated commercial flights would depart London in May. Australians registered to return were contacted via email.

On April 22, these flights were made more generally available to any Australian citizen or permanent resident in the UK and Ireland. This was advertised via the Australian High Commission’s social media. But due to the low numbers taking advantage of the scheduled flights, DFAT eventually merged three flights into one departing May 16. 

Obviously some Australians who have registered their intent to return might not take up the opportunity for a variety of reasons. While DFAT won’t speculate on why the numbers are low, one factor might be the rapidly improving COVID-19 statistics in the UK, with fewer deaths and infections of the virulent UK strain. The impressive vaccination rollout may have alleviated some of the pressure.

The reduced demand for flights from London has proved timely given the resumption of flights from India to Darwin this weekend. We can assume that, with some 9000 citizens and residents desperate to leave the pandemic-ravaged country, those flights will at least be full.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief
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