Australians are set to struggle even more to get home from overseas with airlines pulling flights to deal with strict passenger caps. An estimated 100,000 Aussies are stranded overseas due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, with many flights coming into Australia limited to just 30 passengers per plane.

Because the national cabinet set caps to limit the number of people who can return in a single week it has meant only around 30 people can fly on each plane (even if the aircraft has capacity for around 350 passengers) arriving into Australia. The extremely reduced capacity, combined with the 18,000-person backlog of people trying to get home – means this could drag on for several months.

"I believe that every Australian should have a right to return to their country and that limitations or barriers should not be unreasonable. But the practical reality is that, at this time, there are many Australians stranded in other parts of the world who want to get home and they can't” said Australian Liberal MP Tim Wilson.

Barry Abrams, the executive director of the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia said the caps were making it unviable for international flights to go ahead, suggesting the trend of pulling flights would continue for other airlines. 'Fuel, crew and support costs are high for international flights, and a long-haul aircraft generally carries 250–350 passengers plus freight to cover these costs,' he said. 'Reducing available inbound passenger loads to 10–15% of capacity cannot be considered commercially sustainable.'

Abrams said allowing only around 500 passengers to fly into some Australian airports per week meant it was only a matter of time before flights would be suspended.

'At Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide airports, the small weekly caps (500–525 passengers) can be commercially unviable for international airlines, especially as this small number is intended to be spread out evenly across the week,' he said. 'So it's to be expected these quotas aren't being routinely filled, such that some international airlines will suspend their small number of flights into these airports, further reducing the options available for Australians to return home.'

Out of the 160 international flights coming into Australia every week, Abrams said each flight needed around 100 passengers on board to ensure they were commercially viable.

Australia closed the nation's international borders to tourists to halt the spread of Covid-19 on March 20 and told citizens overseas that they should return as soon as possible.

In early July, tight international arrival caps were introduced limiting the number of Australians a plane could bring into the country – only 4,000 a week.

This is due to Australia's commitment to strict hotel quarantine for 14 days for every returning travel, amid fears large numbers of arrivals could increase the risk of importing Covid-19. It's now estimated it could take up to six months to bring back all the stranded Australians.

Both Qantas and Virgin Australia have effectively paused international flights, leaving Doha-based Qatar Airways as the largest carrier of passengers into Australia.

The airline estimates it has helped return 170,000 Australians and international travellers since March, about ten-fold its nearest competitor.

CEO Akbar Al Baker said flights had become a 'balancing act' under arrival caps with a growing list of bumped passengers unable to be placed on a replacement flight.

'Many passengers will be unable to travel back to Australia for the foreseeable future,' he said, noting it is one of few airlines to continue to fly freight in its passenger flights to “maintain vital supply chains for Australian businesses.”

Qatar Airways on Friday announced it had suspended sales of tickets into Australia until the caps are lifted, and said it will have to cancel the tickets of “thousands” more Australian citizens who are currently scheduled to fly home with the carrier in the coming months.

Qatar Airways is allowed to carry a maximum of 30-50 passengers to Sydney, 40-45 to Perth, 25 to Brisbane and 60 to Adelaide each day while Melbourne remains closed to all inbound passengers. While emergency cases are prioritised, thousands of passengers cannot be accommodated in the coming months due to the restrictions.

The Australian government say “despite the success in suppressing the virus, the Victorian outbreak has shown that social distancing rules must be maintained at least until a vaccine or effective treatment is found”

The current limitations are, as follows:

Sydney – limit of 350 passenger arrivals per day;

Perth – limit of 525 passenger arrivals per week;

Brisbane – limit of 500 passenger arrivals per week;

Adelaide – limit of 500 passenger arrivals per week;

Canberra, Darwin – passenger limits on each flight to be discussed with jurisdictions on a case-by-case basis;

Hobart – no international flights.

The suspension of international flights into Melbourne will also continue, and Australia’s national cabinet agreed that information relating to quarantine capacity and passenger demand would continue to be exchanged and support flexibility within the caps to as much as possible to minimise disruptions to returning Australian citizens and permanent residents.

*The author is an aviation analyst.