In late March, when airlines grounded flights and countries imposed some of the strictest border restrictions seen in decades in response to the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic, attention naturally fell on the hundreds of thousands of tourists and business people who suddenly found themselves stranded. A massive repatriation effort got underway and within a few short weeks, the majority of people who wanted to get home were where they needed to be to see out the first wave of the Corona crisis.
The same coordinated repatriation effort, however, was sorely lacking for more than 400,000 seafarers in what has been described as a “humanitarian tragedy”. Men and women who had already spent months working at sea suddenly found borders closed and flights that were meant to take them home to their loved ones axed.
In one case, a group of 12 Vietnamese seafarers resorted to scrawling a plea for help on the side of their tanker after they ran out of fuel and food but were left to fend for themselves onboard the “floating prison”. The crew had been waiting at least two months for flights and government permissions to get off the vessel.
“Abandonment cases are becoming more common because ship owners do not want to pay the cost of getting seafarers home and replacing them with crew during the crew change crisis,” explained Jason Lam, a Hong Kong-based inspector for the International Transport Workers Federation.
“It is unacceptable to continue to ignore the crew change humanitarian crisis and refuse seafarers the right to return home, to proper medical attention, or to relieve tired crew on ships,” continued Fabrizio Barcellona, the ITF’s seafarer section coordinator.
In many cases, seafarers have been trapped onboard their vessels for more than eight months. There are a significant number who have been at sea for more than a year. The situation was made even worse when some governments relaxed work rules for maritime crew and extended the maximum length of time seafarers could spend at sea.
One apprentice engineer spoke of being left humiliated and increasingly distressed because she doesn’t have access to any sanitary towels. Another crew member told of being stuck onboard a ship despite his contract ending six months ago. Efforts to get him off the ship were initially rejected.
The ITF has called on governments and the maritime industry to ease border restrictions, end “impossible quarantine rules” and get more international flights running to finally bring the crisis to an end.
Which is where Qatar Airways says it can help. The Doha-based airline believes it has already helped repatriate 150,000 maritime workers and is working with the industry on operating more charter flights as the rescue mission continues.
“Throughout the pandemic, we have worked closely with governments and the maritime industry to operate as many flights as possible to facilitate crew changes and to reunite seafarers with their families and loved ones,” commented airline chief executive Akbar Al Baker.
While other airlines all but grounded their entire fleets, Qatar Airways kept flying and at the height of the first Coronavirus wave became the largest international airline. Governments came to rely on Qatar Airways to get their citizens home, especially Australia, where Akbar hoped the gesture would help them airline secure additional landing rights.
In a statement, Qatar Airways said it had even opened a dedicated airport lounge for seafarers at its Doha hub because it understood “the difficulties and challenges many of these vital workers have faced in returning home or completing crew changes”. Along with food and drink, weary mariners will also be able to enjoy a hot shower and free high-speed wifi.
Charter services were organised for destinations not previously served by Qatar Airways, including Abidjan in Ivory Coast, Bridgetown and Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea. The airline also revealed it had recently launched scheduled services to Cebu and Clark in the Philippines with the help of the maritime industry.
“Qatar Airways pledges to remain open for business to facilitate essential business travel,” commented Al Baker as the airline continues to go on a charm offensive in hope that it will pay dividends when travel demand rebounds. He concluded: “With plans to further expand our network to more than 125 destinations, we will continue to work closely with all stakeholders to continue to be the airline of choice to keep seafarers and the global economy moving.”
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 used by some of the biggest names in journalism.