Airlines flying stranded Australians home have said national cabinet’s decision to increase the weekly intake of international passengers doesn’t go far enough.
The 2,000 a week increase announced on Friday is “certainly not an ‘Oh wow, I can finally get on a flight home now’ moment,” the executive director of the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia, Barry Abrams, told Guardian Australia.
The airlines warned the majority of the 27,000 Australians stranded overseas would continue to struggle to access flights for several months unless the arrival caps were boosted significantly.
Abrams said the proposed increase “doesn’t add a lot for Australians overseas” but a suggestion arrivals from New Zealand could soon skip hotel quarantine would create considerable capacity for other international passengers.
The federal opposition also criticised details of national cabinet’s Friday agreement to boost weekly arrivals from 4,000 to 6,000. It argued the government should draw on more commonwealth resources – including 3,000 available beds at the Howard Springs quarantine facility in the Northern Territory – to repatriate desperate Australians faster.
On Friday, Scott Morrison announced New South Wales, Western Australia and Queensland had each agreed to increase their weekly arrival intakes by 500 passengers.
While Sydney airport will be the first to increase its limit, to 2,950 per week, from Monday week, Queensland and WA will only increase their intake by 200 per week from that day.
Queensland’s 500 weekly increase will only be in full effect from 4 October, when the state will accept 1,000 weekly arrivals, while WA’s capacity will expand to just over 1,000 per week from 11 October.
The remaining increases in capacity will come from South Australia, as well as charter repatriation flights to other states and territories, while Melbourne airport will continue to be closed to international arrivals.
The agreement from the states came after leaders, including WA premier Mark McGowan, demanded greater federal support by way of defence force personnel, to secure its hotel quarantine system. NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian had warned she would only agree to NSW’s increase if WA and Queensland matched it.
Abrams, whose board represents airlines including Qatar Airways, Singapore Airlines and Etihad, said the 2,000 a week increase was a “step in the right direction”.
“It’s pleasing to see we’ve got a good recognition of the magnitude of this problem,” he said. “But obviously more capacity and as quickly as possible is the desirable outcome.”
Abrams welcomed the prime minister’s indication that arrivals from New Zealand may soon not have to go into hotel quarantine – as they currently account for about 15% of arrivals into Australia. “It’s pleasing to hear we can start looking at that risk-based approach,” Abrams said.
Abrams previously estimated that based on booking data of cancelled passengers, it would still take four months to return everyone to Australia with an increase of 2,000 a week to the caps.
Qatar Airways welcomed the increase to the caps and said it “remained committed” to the Australian market.
In recent weeks, the Qatar Airways chief executive, Akbar Al Baker, had said the caps totalling about 4,000 nationally per week threatened the viability of Australian routes. He acknowledged the airline was prioritising business class and more expensive passengers to cover their costs under the caps.
Baker said he was “pleased” at the announced increase but noted the caps were still “resulting in thousands of Australian citizens and residents being unable to be accommodated on flights”.
Morrison also flagged that Canberra and Hobart airports, which don’t currently have regular international flights, as well as Darwin, could accept take charter flights. He mentioned the Northern Territory’s Howard Spring facility could be used to quarantine character arrivals if necessary.
Earlier in the week, the territory’s health minister, Natasha Fyles, revealed that Howard Springs was “well set up” to take 3,000 international arrivals and talks had begun with the federal government.
Federal Labor has criticised Morrison for mentioning Howard Springs places as a possibility but being “[un]willing to deliver them for those in need”.
The opposition said the staged increases “risk leaving too many Australians stranded overseas for too long”.
“Scott Morrison has multiple offers and options available to him to fix this problem quickly. Instead of showing leadership on what is a federal responsibility, he has fobbed off these Australians in need to the premiers,” the opposition foreign affairs spokeswoman, Penny Wong, said.
Flights have been landing in Australia with fewer than 30 passengers, and as few as four economy passengers, as airlines prioritise more expensive tickets to remain profitable under the caps.
The caps were introduced in July and are designed to ease pressure on states and territories’ hotel quarantine system.
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