The Dubai-based carrier Emirates is readying to restart very limited operations on Monday, flying initially to just five destinations – a mere 3 per cent of its usual route network. The number of weekly flights will also be operating at less than 1 per cent of the usual 1,800 passenger services but the few planes that do takeoff will prove to be vital for stranded passengers to both get out of and into Dubai.
Emirates, along with every other airline based in the UAE, has been grounded since March 25 after the authorities banned regularly scheduled passenger flights to stem the spread of COVID-19. But late last week, the airline won approval to restart flights to London Heathrow, Frankfurt, Paris, Brussels and Zurich.
That approval was granted on the proviso that Emirates would only carry passengers outbound from Dubai – an essential service for many thousands of tourists who were stranded when flights were grounded with little notice. For now, Dubai is still closed to foreigners and transit passengers continue to be banned.
But that doesn’t mean that Emirates will be operating its Boeing 777-300 fleet back to Dubai completely empty. Instead, along with much-needed cargo space for fresh fruit and vegetable and other essentials, Emirates has offered to repatriate any Emirati citizens stuck overseas for free so long as they first get in contact with their closest UAE embassy to get hold of a ticket.
The decision to repatriate its citizens for free is in stark contrast to the policy taken by many countries. In Peru, there are still citizens from dozens of countries who have been stuck for weeks after the government closed its borders with no warning whatsoever banning all normal commercial flights.
While some rescue flights have already been arranged more are needed and that’s left some tourists with difficult decisions to make. On Friday, the British Embassy told its citizens in the country that Cathay Pacific would be operating a repatriation flight via London – the cost of a ticket to get on that plane would be over £3,000 (USD $3684).
Rescue flights organised by the British government are expected to be cheaper but there’s no knowing when they might actually depart.
Qatar Airways has made much of its promise to get stranded citizens back home – the airline continues to operate a relatively extensive route network in spite of government restrictions and transits through its hub in Doha are still permitted. But passengers hoping to get home with Qatar Airways have complained of eyewatering ticket prices.
Whereas some airlines are selling off tickets at record lows, on certain routes repatriating tourists to their home country has become a seller’s market and its not just Qatar Airways that has cashed in.
The bulk of Lufthansa’s flight schedule in the last couple of weeks has been contracted from the German government, who even commissioned Air New Zealand’s Boeing 777-300 to get thousands of German citizens back home as New Zealand enters lockdown.
Australian flag-carrier Qantas, which was set to stop all international flying at the end of March, is now planning its own repatriation flights, while airlines in the United Kingdom are set to get their hands on a share of a £75 million repatriation flight fund set up by the British government.
It’s worth airlines taking advantage of repatriation flights while they still can – it might still be some time before they get regular passengers again.
Mateusz Maszczynski honed his skills as an international flight attendant at the most prominent airline in the Middle East and has been flying throughout the COVID-19 pandemic for a well-known European airline. Matt is passionate about the aviation industry and has become an expert in passenger experience and human-centric stories. Always keeping an ear close to the ground, Matt's industry insights, analysis and news coverage is frequently relied upon by some of the biggest names in journalism.