When Emirates Flight EK 420 touched down in Perth last Thursday, Rinnie Nelson’s eyes filled with tears.
It was an emotional end to a “phenomenal” journey home from Saudi Arabia in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, which, under normal circumstances, would have taken 15 hours and cost a family of six approximately $5,500.
But, due to a host of coronavirus travel restrictions, the trip took two weeks – including four days trapped inside Germany’s Frankfurt airport – and cost $50,000 in life savings.
Nelson says that, although she feels an “overwhelming sense of joy and relief” having finally made it home, there are no words to describe the depth of mental, emotional, physical, and financial exhaustion the journey has inflicted on her family.
“We had already endured so much”
Nelson and her husband, Matthew, are both from Western Australia but have lived in the Middle East for the past 10 years. When the coronavirus pandemic triggered global lockdowns and travel restrictions in March, the Nelsons had a secure income, housing and access to health care – so they followed the advice of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) to stay in place.
However, things took an unexpected turn in June when Matthew lost his job.
“Initially, there was absolutely no reason whatsoever to return to Australia,” Nelson said.
“But with no work, no more private health care, the children unable to continue schooling and residency visas due to expire in two months’ time, we had no choice but to pack up everything and begin the difficult and challenging task of relocating a family of six to the other side of the world ― in the middle of a global pandemic.”
On August 28 the Nelsons flew from Saudi Arabia to Frankfurt, where the plan was to spend the night before catching a flight home to Perth. But the next day, an hour before boarding, the family was informed that due to a Singapore transit policy oversight made by their travel agent, they were not permitted on the flight.
“We were in shock. We didn’t want to believe we weren’t going home,” she said. “We’d already endured so much in the last two months ― that flight home was meant to be the final step, so finding out that wasn’t happening was both heartbreaking and infuriating.”
The blunder stranded the family inside Frankfurt airport until they were able to board an Emirates flight to Dubai, then fly nonstop to Perth, avoiding a stopover in Singapore. Nelson describes the next four days as “both an exciting adventure and arduous trial”.
“We tried to make it fun and adventurous for the kids and reminded each other that one day this would make a phenomenal story to tell the grandchildren,” she said.
“We were also thankful for a lot of things – we were together, we were safe, had access to our bank accounts and a transit hotel to sleep in at night, which, while expensive, was clean and comfortable.”
“Everyone told us ‘Be strong for the children’ – and I tried my best, even if I had to fake a smile,” she said. “But deep inside, I was angry – angry that the caps made flights out of Saudi Arabia difficult; angry that the Singapore transit policy had been overlooked; angry that we still had a 14-day hotel quarantine to complete that was going to cost us another small fortune.”
“When you’re desperate... you do what you need to do to survive”
The number of Australians allowed to return home has been limited to 4,000 a week since July.
After meeting with the National Cabinet on Friday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced the number will gradually increase to 6,000 per week and has requested that states and territories boost hotel quarantine capacity.
At least 27,000 Australians remain stranded overseas, though the Board of Airline Representatives of Australia puts that number closer to 100,000.
Many Australians trying to return home are complaining of repeated flight cancellations or being “bumped” off flights in favour of business or first-class passengers, sometimes within hours of departure.
Akbar Al Baker, CEO of Qatar Airways, has admitted the airline is prioritising higher-paying passengers so they can remain profitable.
“Because we have such a limited number of passengers that we can carry, we have no other alternative but to maximise the yield that we get because you know very well Australia is at the end of the world,” Al Baker told ABC’s ′News Breakfast’ last Friday.
“It is a very long flight, and when we carry limited numbers of passengers you can see that it puts a huge strain on our costs.”
With this in mind, Nelson felt she had “no alternative” but to dip into their retirement savings and purchase business class tickets to guarantee her family seats on a flight home.
“It was a difficult choice, but at that moment – after already spending days in Frankfurt airport with four children – it was more important for us to secure seats home, no matter how painful the cost. When you’re desperate and you’re worried about the welfare of your family, you do what you need to do to survive.”
Despite the upgrades costing the Nelsons “a significant chunk” of their retirement savings, on the morning they were scheduled to depart Frankfurt for Dubai, the family received devastating news that their connecting flight to Perth had been cancelled. Western Australia had already reached their weekly cap of 525 passengers.
Nevertheless, the Nelsons were advised to fly to Dubai as planned, where they would have to wait for the next available flight. They spent the next nine days in an apartment as the city grappled with a surge in coronavirus infections.
On August 10, almost two weeks since their first scheduled flight from Saudi Arabia, the Nelsons waited at Dubai International Airport praying to board Emirates Flight EK 420 to Perth.
“I’m not going to lie – I felt sick to my stomach. My husband and I were incredibly tense – we were in constant prayer,” Nelson said. “Afterall, in Frankfurt airport, we’d successfully checked in online and had been issued our boarding passes – yet were denied boarding. What if that happened again?”
It was only when the plane taxied down the runway that they were able to relax. “When the plane took off, I closed my eyes, thanked God and cried. We were finally going home.”
“The caps are tearing lives apart”
Nelson said that, though she feels fortunate to be home and halfway through the 14-day mandatory hotel quarantine in Perth, she feels “extremely guilty”.
“We were one of the lucky ones because we had some funds to help us out – even if it meant touching hard-earned retirement savings,” she said.
“But how many other fellow Australians are able to do the same? There are tens of thousands more Aussies – more vulnerable, less abled – who simply do not have funds to buy tickets on the fly when a flight gets cancelled or they get booted off.”
She urged the Australian government to do more for Australians stranded overseas who want to come home.
“It’s not fair at all that other Australian families out there, with young children too, have to ‘suffer’ more in their plight to get home. The caps are tearing lives apart and making things very difficult for citizens who have every right to be in the country in the first place.”