Qantas staff 'incredibly fearful' about flights to rescue Australians trapped overseas

By Anne Davies and Ben Doherty

Qantas is moving to recruit cabin staff from its New Zealand subsidiary to operate scheduled flights to rescue Australians trapped overseas, after it failed to get sufficient volunteers from its Australian cabin staff to operate planned flights.

Amid news that 50 Qantas and Jetstar staff have contracted coronavirus there has been growing anxiety among Qantas staff about plans to resume flights to Los Angeles, London, Auckland and Hong Kong later this week.

Four were infected after operating a flight to evacuate Australians from Peru on 29 March.

A resumption of scheduled international flights has been requested by the federal government as part of measures to get Australians trapped overseas home.

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But despite Qantas standing down 80% of its crews and requiring them to take their annual leave, the company’s call for volunteers has encompassed staff based in New Zealand as well as Australia.

The Flight Attendants Association of Australia said talks had broken down, after the union accused Qantas of trying to walk away from key consultation mechanisms in the enterprise agreement, including involving the union in decisions about the flights beyond the current four-week timeframe.

But the reluctance also stems from anxiety about catching the virus on board.

The FAAA vice-president, Bruce Roberts, said his members were “incredibly fearful” and that members had rung in tears after receiving a positive diagnosis.

One employee, who did not identify themselves, contacted the Guardian to say that Qantas had been slow to allow cabin crew to wear gloves while undertaking meal service, and had not responded to demands for crew to be allocated a toilet on board separate to passengers until very recently.

Qantas’s chief medical officer, Dr Ian Hosegood, declined to respond to the specific allegations, but said the company had introduced “enhanced measures” to protect crew while they were overseas.

“Pilots and cabin crew will be required to self-isolate in their hotel rooms and we are putting in place other measures in-flight,” he said.

The Australian and International Pilots Association said its Qantas employees would continue to fly a limited number of international and domestic routes.

But the AIPA president, Mark Sedgwick, said any Qantas crew members who contracted Covid-19 while on company service should be able to use sick leave for the period they were in insolation or recovering from an illness caused by the virus.

He said it was unclear how pilots and crews who had become infected had contracted the virus.

The resumption of flights will also renew the focus on the exemption for crews from the requirement to isolate for 14 days, unlike returning international passengers.

Hosegood said the government’s exemption for air crew from mandatory self-isolation was critical to help stranded Australians get home safely.

​But he acknowledged that in some destinations the local community spread had been underestimated by local health officials.

“For example, previously crew were allowed to interact within hotels, and we suspect that’s how a number of crew contracted the virus in Santiago,” he said.

However, Qantas insists there are no confirmed cases of transmission of the coronavirus to employees or customers on board its aircraft, or any aircraft globally.

The airline believes that on current evidence transmission is unlikely, but it nevertheless has put in place enhanced cleaning procedures.

The quarantine exemption will be examined as the government reviews potential vectors for transmission of Covid -19 into the broader community.

Health workers also have an exemption from self isolation – their jobs necessarily mean they will come into contact with Covid-positive patients.

On Tuesday the NSW government announced plans to provide free accommodation to frontline workers so they did not have the anxiety that they might be taking the infection home to family.

The new flights will benefit stranded Australians in some major destinations but it appears highly unlikely that the government will launch repatriation flights for thousands of Australians stranded in India, whose population of 1.3bn is on a nationwide lockdown.

Securing a flight was “proving challenging for a number of reasons”, the high hommission in New Delhi wrote to Australians who had registered to come home: primarily a lack of aircraft available and the cost of flights.

There were no commercial aircraft available to fly to Australia, the high commission said. Air India, which usually runs direct flights to Australia, has told the Australian government it could not fly to Australia now because it doesn’t have crews available or resources in place in Australia.

Getting an Australian airline – neither of which flies to India currently – faced regulatory hurdles which would take time to resolve.

For Australians stranded in South America, commercial charters have been organised. The embassy in Lima is accepting bookings for two flights on 8 April, flying Cusco-Santiago-Melbourne, and Lima-Iquitos-Santiago-Melbourne.

The cost would be $2,550 per person, about half the earlier flight from Lima and Cusco. Both flights will land in Melbourne and passengers would be taken into quarantine for 14 days in Melbourne.

More than 400 Australians have registered an interest.