Melbourne Could Lose Flights Over Crew Testing Requirement

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Several international airlines have threatened to quit flying to Melbourne after the Victorian State Government imposed draconian COVID quarantine rules on international airline crews. The Victorian Government has moved to close a loophole in Australia’s otherwise tough quarantine regime. But airlines say the new rules are untenable and unworkable.

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Victoria is imposing tough COVID quarantine rules on international airline crews. Photo: Getty Images

Victoria follows New South Wales in managing international airline crews

Despite limits on how many passengers can arrive, many international airlines have maintained some services to Melbourne. They do brisk business carrying cargo, and for some airlines, it is also about maintaining a presence in the region. The airlines flying in include the big Gulf carriers, Asian airlines, and regional airlines like Air New Zealand.

To date, crew on these flights who overnight in Melbourne have been expected to go to their hotel room and stay there. It’s largely an honor system that recognizes the transitory lifestyles of airline crews. Most airlines are super-efficient at safely managing how their crews spend their turnarounds. But some are not so great.

Following a small COVID outbreak in Sydney in the last week and some adverse publicity regarding some bad behavior from airline crews on turnarounds there, New South Wales cracked down. That state directed all crews to stay in one of two airport hotels.

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Melbourne is not laying out the welcome mat for international airline crew. Photo: Melbourne Airport

Victoria will not let airline crew leave until a positive COVID result comes back

The Victorian Government has taken it one step further. This week, all international airline crew on overnight turnarounds in Melbourne will stay in supervised quarantine hotels. Crew members will not leave their rooms. But unlike New South Wales, all international airline crew will undergo a COVID-19 test upon arrival in Melbourne. They will stay in quarantine until the result comes back, even if their flight home departs tomorrow. No result back, no flight, no exceptions.

If a result comes back positive, the crew member will spend 14 days in quarantine in Australia.

“Our position is non-negotiable,” said Jeroen Weimar, a senior Victorian COVID bureaucrat, on Thursday. Mr Weimar said if a crew member does test positive for COVID-19, other crew members on that flight will be deemed close contacts and also expected to sit out 14 days in Melbourne.

As of Thursday, around 250 international airline crew arriving in Melbourne had been tested for COVID-19. Two of them had returned positive results and were shifted to a “hot hotel” in Melbourne’s South Wharf precinct.

Mr Weimar claims the response from airlines thus far was positive. “This is our way of keeping the airline industry flying,” he said yesterday.

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Airlines have not reacted positively to the new Victorian Government rules. Photo: Getty Images

Multiple airlines say they’ll exit Melbourne

But that’s not the feedback everyone else is getting from the international airlines flying into Melbourne. They are livid. Multiple airlines are considering pulling out of Melbourne. Among those threatening to go are United Airlines, Royal Brunei Airlines, and Japan Airlines. Singapore Airlines and the Gulf airlines are reportedly “in discussions.”

No airline wants their crew and planes potentially stranded in Melbourne for up to 14 days. Under the new guidelines and disregarding the cost issue, an airline couldn’t even whizz down with a spare crew on another plane to pick up an idle A350 at Melbourne Airport because that arriving crew would have to undergo the same rigmarole as the stranded crew.

The Victorian Government was the subject of nationwide contempt this year when their mismanagement of hotel quarantine lead to a devastating outbreak of COVID in Melbourne. By locking down Melbourne for months, they got that under control. Now, in an attempt to prevent it from happening again, they are instituting knee jerk policy on the run rather than sound public health policy.

Quitting town is a relatively easy decision for the airlines to make. They rely on cargo to generate revenue on Melbourne flights. If local politicians make it more trouble than it’s worth, the airlines can also go somewhere else to fill their belly holds.