At 32 weeks pregnant with her first baby, Bobbie Dawson readied herself to board a flight to Canada to visit her mother, who was being transferred to palliative care.
It was not a trip she was looking forward to undertaking, but the Canberra-based resident had been granted exemption from the Australian Government on compassionate grounds to make the journey.
“It was obviously a difficult decision [for me] based on all the different factors,” Ms Dawson said.
“But not many people are leaving the country unless it is under difficult circumstances.”
As she was over 28 weeks pregnant, Ms Dawson required approval from her doctor to fly, but, because she had had “a very healthy pregnancy”, she felt “confident going in the first place, up until that 36 week mark.”
“When I booked the flights there were a lot of non-negotiables I had — what was going to make it viable for me to go back to Canada in a way that I thought was going to be safe and prudent and manageable if things like pre-term labour would occur,” she said.
So, Ms Dawson flew to Canada for what would be a difficult and emotional trip — and during which all but a handful of days would be spent away from her mother, by herself in mandatory quarantine.
However, less than a week before she was due to fly back to Australia, Ms Dawson missed a call from Emirates.
Much to her surprise, she had been bumped from the third leg of her flight, which should have taken her from Dubai to Sydney, where she would complete another fortnight of quarantine.
“When the cancellation of the seat came, that was something that I hadn’t anticipated,” she said.
“When you’re trying to wrap up the final days of a visit … it ended up being an almost chronic state of stress.”
Nearly 36 weeks pregnant and no flight home
Despite booking her return flights through a registered travel agent in Australia, and with clear documentation detailing both her travel approval and her pregnancy timeline, Ms Dawson received “a flick of an email” from Emirates, notifying her that her economy seat had been cancelled.
“They tried to call me once,” Ms Dawson said.
“The email on August 20 said, ‘We have been unable to reach you regarding changes to your booking. Your flight from Dubai to Sydney has been cancelled due to Government regulations. Sorry for any inconvenience’ … It was an automated message.”
Stunned, Ms Dawson called Emirates “every four hours” to try and figure out what was going on and why her seat had been cancelled.
She eventually spoke with a supervisor who said, due to a cap on the number of people allowed to enter Australia, she had been bumped off her economy seat.
“Emirates was unwilling to discuss with me, from who made the decision to why they wouldn’t consider my medical circumstances,” Ms Dawson said.
In an email to Ms Dawson, Emirates said the airline was “constantly” making changes to their operations “depending on operational and government requirements”.
“There are capacity restrictions mandated by the Australian Government and the selection is random,” a customer sales representative told Ms Dawson.
Emirates did not respond to the ABC’s request for comment or specific questions about the airline’s seat and ticket policies during COVID-19.
‘Prepare to deliver the baby in Canada’
Since July, the Australian Government has capped the number of people coming home to Australia to just over 4,000 each week.
Sydney arrivals are capped at 350 passengers per day.
When Ms Dawson booked her return flights through a travel agency and left the country the next day, the caps had been in place for over a month.
But Ms Dawson, like other Australians currently stuck overseas, claims, in order to fit within the government cap, airlines are bumping economy passengers to prioritise passengers who have paid more for their fares in business and first classes.
Desperate to secure a flight home, Ms Dawson asked Emirates about being re-booked in business class, despite the additional cost.
“They said that there was nothing available until November,” she said, noting that her yet unborn baby would be about six weeks old by then.
Instead she began calling travel agents in Canada and in Canberra, as well as the Australian High Commission in Ottawa.
The people she spoke to at the High Commission were “really supportive and lovely” but cautioned Ms Dawson to have “back-up plans”.
If she was not able to fly before her pregnancy reached 36 weeks the High Commission advised she might have to consider delivering her baby in Canada.
$8,000 for a one-way ticket home
The High Commission suggested the “best case scenario” would be to apply for exemption from NSW hotel quarantine so that Ms Dawson would not “count” in Sydney’s cap, and they offered to make some calls on her behalf.
Ms Dawson had in fact already applied to NSW Health for this exemption when she first arrived in Canada, and prior to her flight being cancelled.
As part of that application, she had a supporting doctor’s letter outlining the late term of her pregnancy, and a plan for her husband to temporarily relocate from the family home so she could quarantine by herself.
But after eight days waiting, neither Ms Dawson nor her husband had heard back from NSW Health. When she followed it up, Ms Dawson was told that her exemption had been denied.
Her request for it to be reconsidered based on new circumstances was also denied.
“I ended up on the Friday, in the middle of the night, booking with United,” she said.
“Each day the flights were more and more limited, and even the business class tickets were more and more expensive.”
In the end Ms Dawson paid $8,000 for a one-way ticket home, and travelled only a day later than her original flight.
She said, while she would have preferred not to have paid the extra money and did not need the stress of the cancelled flight, she was fortunate to be able to afford the airfare.
Local politicians rally to get Ms Dawson home
On her final day in Canada, after what was a mentally draining time due to the nature of her trip, Ms Dawson received an automated email from Emirates confirming her flight from Dubai to Sydney.
This notification came with no prior notice that her seat had been reinstated, and three hours after she would have had to check in for the first leg of her original trip.
“They reinstated on me on a flight that I couldn’t take,” Ms Dawson said.
When Ms Dawson finally arrived in Sydney on August 27 — the day she ticked over to being 36 weeks pregnant — she was placed in a health-managed hotel to quarantine.
But Ms Dawson’s husband had been petitioning both sides of ACT Government to secure her exemption from hotel quarantine.
“On the Friday, we heard from Alistair Coe’s office. [They] had received an in-principal approval from the director of the Exemptions Unit … basically saying that she had requested that I be put into the police-managed quarantine facility, and pending approval from ACT Health, I could complete my quarantine back in Canberra,” Ms Dawson said.
“Lucky for us, my husband had already heard back from ACT Health, and … I got the approval from ACT Health by the Friday afternoon.”
Ms Dawson was finally able to return home.
So who is responsible for returning citizens on travel exemptions?
Ms Dawson’s situation poses another question: What responsibility does the Australian Government have, to ensure those who are granted exemptions to travel and leave the country with return tickets, actually make it home?
“The fact is that it is a very rigorous process for leaving the country … that’s where it’s a little bit different to those living abroad and trying to get back.
“There needs to be a responsibility for the return of those who aren’t residing overseas and who have permission to travel. What sort of recourse or advice is available to them to make sure they can actually return, and return safely?”
Furthermore, Ms Dawson said she thought the Government also had a responsibility to ensure price gouging did not happen.
“It’s not ok to expect people to pay that much money,” Ms Dawson said.
“The Government is saying there’s nothing they can do because it’s the airline. But the inequity is something that they really need to take some responsibility for.”
Earlier this month, Labor moved a motion in the Senate urging the Morrison Government to take “urgent action” on increasing quarantine capacity, increasing the number of permitted international arrivals, chartering flights if Australians are stranded, and “stopping price gouging by airlines flying into Australia”.
“We have 23,000 Australians stranded overseas, 3,500 who are vulnerable,” Senator Penny Wong said.
“We have our high commissions and embassies suggesting people crowd-fund. We have people not being able to get flights, and we have airlines behaving unfairly, cancelling economy seats and only allowing people to book first class or business class. We have people who haven’t been refunded.
Many more Australians trying to get home
After a national cabinet meeting last week, Prime Minster Scott Morrison said that state premiers had agreed more Australians needed to be able to come home.
“We noted that New South Wales has been doing all the heavy lifting on this, and they really are at their capacity for the time being,” Mr Morrison said.
“And so, as I discussed with Cabinet during the course of this week, the Transport Minister will be working with others to see if we can get flights that currently all seek to come to Sydney, to see if we’re in a position to try and get them to go into other ports, whether that be in Perth, in Adelaide, in Darwin, the ACT, or elsewhere, even Tasmania.”
Yesterday Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said the Government was working to boost hotel quarantine capacity and allow Australians stranded overseas to get home in time for Christmas.
But for people like Ms Dawson — Australian citizens, with family overseas — those discussions are already too late.
“I understand I appreciate the various restrictions and why they’re in place, but I think at the core of it, there is an exemption process, and there should be — both with the Government and with the airlines — better handling and transparency around assisting people, rather than leaving people to scramble,” Ms Dawson said.
“Those who have left and are trying to get back are in a different set of circumstances than those who are residing overseas and trying to return.”