Airlines threaten to abandon Melbourne over COVID-19 test requirement

International airlines say Victoria’s new COVID-19 testing and quarantine regime for flight crew is unworkable and have threatened to suspend services to Melbourne in response to the state’s attempt to plug a gap in its coronavirus defences.

Two international airline crew members tested positive to the virus and were placed in hotel quarantine this week, Victoria’s COVID testing commander Jeroen Weimar confirmed on Thursday.

International airlines are objecting to Melbourne's strict rules on the testing of crew.
International airlines are objecting to Melbourne’s strict rules on the testing of crew. Credit:Luis Ascui

It comes a day after Victorian authorities imposed a new program of mandatory quarantine in government-managed hotels when transiting through Melbourne, similar to an approach NSW put in place this week.

Unlike NSW, however, Victoria requires crews to take a COVID-19 test on arrival and they are only allowed to leave quarantine for their return flight once they have been cleared with a negative result.


Airline staff who test positive are required to spend 14 days in hotel quarantine and their fellow crew members also face a stint in isolation. Airlines fear the rules could result in pilots and cabin crew being stranded in Australia leaving nobody to fly their aircraft out of the country.

One senior source at an international airline, who asked to remain anonymous because they were not authorised to speak to the media and feared jeopardising negotiations with the Victorian government, said the company was considering suspending flights to Victoria.

International airline crew face 14 days in quarantine if they test positive for COVID-19.
International airline crew face 14 days in quarantine if they test positive for COVID-19. Credit:Getty

Another airline industry source with knowledge of the threats, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said three other airlines were also contemplating changes as a result of the testing policy.

“We could be leaving a very expensive piece of metal on the ground,” said the airline source. “We are seriously questioning if we continue operating to Melbourne.”

US carrier United Airlines, Japan Airlines and Royal Brunei have made the loudest protests against the new policy, according to one government source with knowledge of the discussions. Other carriers currently flying to Melbourne include Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Qatar.

It is not clear how serious the threats to suspend passenger services are or whether they are an attempt to have the government roll back an inconvenient policy.

Victoria's testing commander Jeroen Weimar said the government's position was non-negotiable.
Victoria’s testing commander Jeroen Weimar said the government’s position was non-negotiable.Credit:Jason South

Mr Weimar said that while he understood the new program was a “logistical challenge” for airlines and that some might suspend flights to Melbourne, “our position is non-negotiable”.

“As we’ve seen in very recent developments both here and in Sydney, the air crew represents significant risk,” he said.

“While we’re doing the right thing in terms of managing our international returning Australians in a very secure way, it’s important we also manage our international air crew in a similar way.”

Mr Weimar said Victoria considered anyone part of a crew in which one member tests positive as a close contact and the “preferred position” was they would also isolate in a quarantine hotel, but that would be negotiated individually with each airline.

He also expressed frustration that travellers from NSW’s “red zones” continued to arrive in Melbourne without a permit, with 48 people set to spend Christmas Day in hotel quarantine as a result.

“Regrettably I think another 11 or 12 turned up yesterday despite our fairly extensive communication program to encourage people not to return to Victoria from [the red zone areas] but nevertheless they’re doing their 14 days of isolation in our hotel quarantine program,” he said.

“Clearly that’s not a foolproof system. We understand that in this environment of contactless boarding that may be difficult to achieve but it is a bit frustrating.”

Mr Weimar said he “implored” airlines to do better after the rules had been in place for many days now, saying the government expected them to “do their part of this job to ensure that the people who are travelling are eligible”.

The COVID-19 outbreak in Sydney’s northern beaches has hit air traffic at what is normally the busiest time of year, with 190 flights between Sydney and Melbourne cancelled over the past three days.

Meanwhile 25 international travellers have been granted exemption from Victoria’s hotel quarantine program since it restarted on December 7. A DHHS spokeswoman said six exemptions were granted on medical and compassionate grounds, five were given to foreign diplomats and their family and one was granted to an unaccompanied minor.

The remaining 13 were approved for “international transit, interstate travel for medical or compassionate reasons and maritime crew members”.

“These people all undertook the mandatory 14-day quarantine in an alternate location,” said the spokeswoman. Mr Weimar said authorised officers regularly checked in on people allowed to self-isolate at home with fines up to about $5000 if they were caught out.

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