International airline crew turning around in Sydney will now have to spend their layovers in police guarded quarantine hotels. It follows a serious breach of protocols by a LATAM crew earlier in December and a small spike in COVID-19 cases on Sydney’s northern beaches.
Airline crew directed to stay in designated crew hotels
To date, the relaxed quarantine arrangements for international airline crew have been a weak point in Australia’s otherwise stringent border and quarantine rules. All other arrivals have to spend 14-days under guard in a quarantine hotel. But recognizing the special nature of the airline business, the New South Wales Government has allowed airlines to make their own arrangements. They’ve merely asked crews to self-isolate in hotels of the airline’s choosing until their flight out. But now, that’s going to change.
“The issue isn’t the guidelines we have in place,” said New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian. “It’s, unfortunately, a few occasions when people have breached the guidelines or chosen not to self-isolate when they should have.”
In early December, 13 overnighting LATAM crew broke the protocols. The crew left their Sydney Airport hotel and visited a variety of hospitality and other venues. New South Wales Police were notified, and almost US$10,000 in fines were issued to the crew members.
“At this stage, the usual protocol is that aircrew go to their designated hotel, depending on where their airline takes them. There are 25 or 26 hotels where the aircrew are located, which makes it very difficult to police,” said the New South Wales Premier.
“From Tuesday (December 22), there will be two designated hotels for all aircrew. It does put pressure on those airlines, but we have to consider the right balance.”
Health officials and New South Wales Police will be onsite at the hotels to ensure crews on layovers do not leave their rooms.
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Decision will impact around 2,000 airline crew every week
Despite a downturn in traffic, around 2,000 international airline crew land in Sydney every week. According to the New South Wales Department of Health, most crews have turnarounds of up to 72 hours.
The issue isn’t impacting Qantas International, which is only running a few repatriation flights over January. A Qantas spokesperson told Simple Flying any relevant crew self-isolate at home for 14-days following a flight and will continue to do so. Qantas says it has strict protocols in place to ensure the well-being of its crew and the community.
Air New Zealand, who have continued to fly into Australia throughout 2020, told Simple Flying their crews do not usually overnight in Australia. The crew on Air New Zealand flights to either Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane stay airside while the plane is getting turned around. The airline says that, for flights between Sydney and Brisbane and Norfolk Island, and the freight service between Brisbane and Los Angeles, aircrew stay in their hotel at all times during the layover and travel to and from the hotels in dedicated crew transport.
Singapore Airlines already adheres to best practice
Singapore Airlines is another airline that has kept flying to Australia throughout 2020. They presently fly into five Australian cities, including Sydney. Spokesperson Karl Schubert said Singapore Airlines would continue to work closely with NSW Health and all state and federal health authorities to support the safe operations of its flights to Australia.
“When laying over in destinations outside Singapore, our crew are required to use only the designated transport assigned to their flight and upon arrival at the crew hotel, must remain in their rooms for the duration of their layover.
“Crew are only permitted to leave their rooms when departing for their return flight to Singapore. The layover time for crew operating to Sydney varies depending upon the flight, however, no crew layover exceeds 48 hours.”
Some disquiet behind the scenes?
The New South Wales Government says it is taking this step following discussions with the airlines still flying into Sydney. These are primarily the Gulf carriers, the three big US airlines, and various airlines from Asia. Simple Flying has contacted several airlines and they are broadly supportive of steps taken to manage the spread of COVID-19.
But there are unconfirmed reports that some airlines and many crew are unhappy with the new regime. Some suggest mixing crew from high-risk countries with crew from low-risk countries in one hotel is a health hazard. Airlines also have contracts with certain hotels to accommodate their crews. There may be a cost incurred in breaking contracts and it is queried whether the New South Wales Government will cover any costs incurred. There is a live concern some airlines will suspend their flights to Sydney until the layover regime converts back to international norms.
The Victorian Government has also advised that aircrew turning around in Melbourne will soon face a similar set of rules. Simple Flying has contacted the Victorian Government to get a start date. However, we have not heard back before the publication deadline. Further, there is an exception the new regime in Sydney will soon get rolled out around Australia.
What do you think? Is this a step too far or simply a sensible precaution? Post a comment and let us know.