Sitting in his deceased parents’ empty UK home, Melbourne man Niall Williams waits for a flight back to Australia.
He has an economy ticket on a flight to Sydney next month, hundreds of kilometres away from his fiancee who is currently in lockdown, and a $3000 hotel quarantine bill waiting for him.
But Mr Williams is unsure if he will get on the September 10 flight.
Airlines are routinely bumping economy and premium economy passengers in favour of higher-paying passengers so they can remain profitable.
His father Trevor Williams died from COVID-19 on June 2.
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The 32-year-old and his brother knew he was “quite ill and in hospital” in late May.
But he said the two men “had to wait for our Dad to die” – less than two years after their mother passed away – to be able to leave the country.
“My brother is in Sydney, I’m in Melbourne but the Australian Government wouldn’t allow us to leave,” he told news.com.au.
“We got refused the first time, and they essentially said that until we gave them the death certificate, it wasn’t enough.”
His brother’s application was accepted four days later and Mr Williams’ on the fifth day.
“Sitting there, knowing that you’re doing nothing, there’s a lot going through your mind at that time,” he said.
He arrived in early June, just as quarantine was enforced, but was allowed under special circumstances to be one of 10 people at the funeral.
Then came the decision on who would stay to tie up their Dad’s estate including the family home they grew up in.
Mr Williams said his brother has a wife, children and a business in Sydney.
“We decided between the two of us that I would stay back and be the one that did all the stuff here,” he said.
“I’m slightly regretting that now but the virus was happening and his business is his livelihood.
“He stayed for two weeks, we did the funeral. He helped me as much as he could here.”
Mr Williams works as a freelance digital design manager but stopped working to focus on his family affairs.
His flight on August 13 was cancelled 72 hours before it was due to depart.
“I’d done everything I needed to do in the UK,” he said.
“Pretty much sitting in an empty house. It’s quite an emotional situation sitting in your deceased parents’ house which has now been gutted of everything.
“I was meant to start my new job on August 17, which I’d already put back by two weeks because I couldn’t get a flight on August 3.
“So now I’m pretty much stuck in the UK for a month without any support.
“I don’t have any family really locally, my partner is stuck in Melbourne and she’s struggling because everyone seems to be at the moment in this lockdown.
“My issue really at the moment is that it’s almost like a lottery system for the flights.”
There are believed to be about 18,000 Australians stuck in various places around the world who are still struggling to come home due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Mr Williams said it has been quite frustrating to see that there’s “one rule for one and another rule for another”, such as people with “certain levels of money able to take shortcuts” and the case of the Australian men’s cricket team.
“You’re seeing a lot of stories about wealthy businessmen being able to get through the system because they’ve got a special circumstance or things like that,” he said.
“Personally, I love cricket but … I had to wait till my Dad died to fly back to the country where I was born yet they can fly to the UK to play cricket and they probably will be allowed to fly back to Australia when it’s all over.
“Average blokes like myself are just stuck in limbo and I don’t know how long I’m going to be here.
“My life isn’t here, my life is in Australia.”
Mr Williams said he is “quite mentally strong at the moment” but it is hard to be away from “all your friends and your loved ones”, including his fiancee who he was supposed to marry in December before they postponed their nuptials due to the multiple financial blows they have suffered.
“We lost our Mum 20 months ago so I was prepared for what grief is,” he said.
“(Compared to) if I’d lost one of them and never felt that before.”
He said he had come across people on different Facebook feeds stuck overseas including a young woman on a gap year in Ireland who had her flight to Australia cancelled five times.
“I had to be back in the UK to do all the stuff that we had to do,” he said.
“It’s all based on the individual. People who probably haven’t made the call soon enough, you can’t really have much to moan about.
“I’m trying not to moan because I understand everybody is doing it tough … but it does feel like there isn’t a system in place where they are considering a case-by-case basis.”
Mr Williams said it didn’t seem like anyone was really taking any responsibility and the airlines were “working to the rules” they’d been given including the cap on arrivals at Australian airports.
“But it seems like they know they’re only going to be getting so many flights … like they’re giving it to the highest bidder,” he said.
Since last month, international arrivals have been capped per week to 525 in Perth and 500 in Brisbane, and 450 per day with a maximum of 50 passengers per flight in Sydney.
The Federal Government has a 4000 a week cap on incoming arrivals, with airlines limiting passengers to mere dozens per flight.
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Mr Williams said when his early August flight was cancelled, an operator at the Australian consulate in London said to contact his airline.
Qatar Airways suggested the “solution” of buying a business class ticket on the next available flight on August 23 for well over $6000, or keep his economy airfare for a month away.
“The prices had hiked up – there was a lack of supply and a big demand,” he said.
“I’d already bought this ticket which was already double what a normal one-way flight would be.
“I found there were not many flights out there that were going direct, I didn’t want to get caught in a random city.
“With my tail between my legs, I called them back and said I’d accept that (September) flight.”
Mr Williams said he booked his flight back into Sydney so that he would have somewhere to stay after quarantine, given Melbourne’s hotel program has been suspended until October and is under inquiry.
“I’m going to be flying back to a city that I don’t even live in,” he said.
“I’m still not going to be back with my partner. It’s a complete mess.
“We are currently trying to submit a special circumstance case so that I don’t have to pay (the $3000 quarantine fee in New South Wales) but I’m not very hopeful on that because what’s considered a special case anymore?”
In a statement on Friday, Qatar Airways said: “With the recent extension of restrictions until late-October, Qatar Airways can only transport a maximum of approximately 4500 passengers during this time.”
The airline said it is allowed to repatriate 30 to 50 passengers to Sydney, 40 to 45 to Perth, 25 to Brisbane and 60 to Adelaide each day.
“As a result, every day hundreds of people are advised that they cannot be accommodated on their booked flight and need to be rebooked for a later date where there may be availability,” the statement reads.
“To further limit the impact of the restrictions, the airline has already stopped accepting any new bookings for flights to Australia until the current passenger cap is relaxed.”
Mr Williams said his “biggest worry” is that his flight will continue to be pushed back.
“It could be December and I’m still stuck in the UK,” he said.