Sole traveller watching Qantas plane at empty airport

The DFAT experience – the long way home

You may wonder why I am posting a travel article here, on a health and wellness blog – and a very specific one at that. The answer is simple. Returning home to Australia has turned into a nightmare for many, and the way to get home is long and stressful. If you’re looking at DFAT flights,  you’ve likely had at least one cancelled flight, some financial trouble and haven’t been able to hug loved ones for a long time.

If you aren’t sure what to expect from DFAT and how to get home on one of the coveted repat flights – read on.

Tens of thousands of Aussies are currently stranded overseas. Permanent residents and citizens, spouses to be and others. Everyone has their story, and every story is devastating to listen to. This blog isn’t to share those stories, as otherwise this would be a neverending post. Let’s just say, everyone who ends up on a DFAT flight, has had some of their most trying times in life behind them, a lot of heartbreak, tears, and the only thing stopping many from becoming clinically depressed is the amount of concentration and focus needed to not just get on a DFAT flight, but navigating the “bureaucrazy” when you get confirmed on one…

What are DFAT flights and how do you get on one?

According to smartraveller, DFAT flights are commercially facilitated flights.

“The DFAT registration portal is a database where Australian citizens and permanent residents who are currently overseas and have been trying to return home but haven’t been able to can register their details with DFAT.”

The Australian government strongly encourages you to “continue seeking commercial flight options through an airline or travel agent, even if you have registered with DFAT. Places on DFAT facilitated commercial flights are limited and those that have been identified as the most vulnerable are given priority.”

The problem – there aren’t any commercial flights available till February 2022 (that’s as of September 2021) next year. You may get lucky and get on a business or first class flight someone else has cancelled, but the waitlists for flights are long. Very long.

Thanks to the reduced arrival caps (e.g. Sydney allows 750 passengers a week, pre-Covid over 1.46million arrived per month), the rest of the year is fully booked, and most economy passengers get bumped off.

Cheapest tickets I found were around AU$12,000 with no guarantees that you are actually going home as flight caps to airlines get only announced a few days prior to each flight and the number of passengers allowed onboard can be anything from 0 to 26 a flight.

Commercially facilitated means that you pay – they aren’t repatriation flights, as other countries have done, but purely flights via Qantas that are guaranteed to land and deliver you to a quarantine facility.

Prices for the flight from Frankfurt to Darwin varied from around AU$ 2000 in economy to $9500 in business. One way. But to get an economy flight is pretty much impossible – more about that later.

Registering with DFAT

To register, go to https://covid19.dfat.gov.au/citizeninformation/s/

Once you navigated the form, make sure you don’t just save the form, but go back to the home screen to submit it.

If your circumstances change, you can go back into the form to edit (and is recommended to do regularly if your situation becomes more dire) and make sure you re-submit.

If you’re in a particularly vulnerable situation, call your embassy or consulate and explain your situation to add some urgency.

Getting a flight offer

If a flight gets organised in your region, and you are deemed vulnerable enough to be allowed on it, DFAT sends you an email (always check your spam, they usually go in there) with a code to  book your flight.

In my case, I was sent an email with flight offers for Sept 6 and 16 from Frankfurt to Darwin.

Luckily, I was online when this email came through – as within 24 min both flights were fully booked. I logged on after 12 min, Sept 6 was sold out already, and there was only business class available for the 15th.

I was in the lucky position to be able to spend that amount of money – but many families, especially with multiple kids have no way to afford business class – so once you register, make sure you monitor your emails and get booking as quickly as possible once you receive the link.

Should (for whatever reason) you get to the point that you entered all your details, but payment comes up as error – that’s a Qantas system fault. Ring them asap, as your booking is reserved, and you can process the payment manually. If you happen to just redo the rego process, and your payment goes through on the second try – watch your bank statement, a few of us had fares deducted double or triple – again call Qantas and a refund gets issued within a few days for those “ghost” tickets.

If the flight shows as sold out – keep checking. Above mentioned bookings get released at some point if someone had multiple reservations and you may snap up an economy seat.

Now that you got over the first hurdle and you have a confirmed flight, the “fun” really begins…

Getting ready for your flight

Qantas and DFAT have different regulations for each country those flights depart from (in Europe, that’s usually Germany, Turkey, and the UK). And from what I’ve seen, the German restrictions are the most ridiculous when it comes to PCR testing.

Once you get your flight tickets, you receive an email summary with everything you need to do. All emails are catered to non-Germans arriving in Germany (as special transit permissions are granted to those without visas). If you’re already in Germany you’re required to send an email to an address in the DFAT email, to get special instructions. Basically, the following is the reply you’ll get if travelling to Frankfurt from within Germany and is subject to change:

German Residents: Be at the Eurofin test centre inside the Frankfurt Airport Hilton Garden Inn (entry is next to the Hilton Airport) by 6pm the latest – after that you’re free to go and stay wherever you like. If you decide to stay at the Garden Inn, same rules as for non-German residents apply.

Non-German residents: You will be sent a code to book at the Garden Inn for a discounted rate and your testing will take place from 1pm onwards in your room. Once you’ve been tested, you’re required to isolate until the flight, regardless of whether you are from another EU country, fully vaxxed, tested negative on entry or not – normal entry rules to Germany don’t seem to apply. And yes, we all agree, there is no common sense behind this whatsoever… but the consulate is pretty clear on the isolation, even if you had a few days relaxing in Germany prior to testing.

Word of warning regarding Eurofin – make sure they test your properly. They have a poor track record of inconclusive results. 

Myself (and those in the what’s app group that we started for those on the September flights) experienced the following:

If you test positive, you’re screwed. If you test negative, you’re good.

If you’re inconclusive you’re in for a hassle. For the Sept 6 flight a guy tested inconclusive – despite a negative test the same day at another provider (recognized by all airlines BUT Qantas), not allowed to board. And was rebooked onto our flight a week later.

On our flight 2 women tested inconclusive and one had a false positive. Despite all three of them providing tests from another lab (again recognized by all airlines but Qantas) confirming they’re negative, they had to retest at the same Eurofin lab which they organised without DFAT help by themselves – which, despite promising to rush the test didn’t get the results (all negative again) to Qantas in time. After many calls and discussions across Qantas, consulate, DFAT etc. the two originally inconclusive ladies were allowed to board (their families had tested negative from the start, too) but the false positive wasn’t allowed to fly – her future tbc, as no other DFAT flights from Germany have been announced yet.

That can't be all that's required, surely?

Of course not.

Before you even navigate the hurdle of the test – there are quite a few forms required to be filled in. As the rules for entering Germany are different for everyone I will leave those documents out, but you will find the latest advice here and in your DFAT email.

For everyone on the flight, you will need to fill in the following

  • Australian Travel declaration (7 days or less before flying)
  • NT border travel exemption ( 7 days or less before flying)
    • The link in the DFAT email doesn’t work. Use this and the button below Step 2: https://coronavirus.nt.gov.au/travel/quarantine
    • Tick yes to arriving from overseas within the past 48 hours (fill in form as if you just landed)
    • Don’t click into the first field on the next page (domestic travel) as otherwise your form will not submit
    • Howard Springs address is 140 Howard Springs Rd, the rest will auto-populate
  • DFAT waiver (you can do this right away; you are pretty much signing your life and rights away)
  • Howard Springs Quarantine form (again, you can fill this in early)
    • To submit you need to make sure all questions are green – so if you don’t have dietary requirements e.g. you will need to tick any box and then untick it to be able to submit it
  • If you’re vaccinated or had Covid before – email those details to DFAT
  • Answer a few emails from DFAT and/or Howard Springs – not everyone gets them/ needs them, only if they want to clarify something

Time for Check-in!

Be there at 6.45 for a 10am flight.

New baggage allowances (due to the detour around Afghanistan less weight can be carried…) are:

  • One bag per person to check in at max. 30 kgi
  • One piece of hand luggage.

To be fair, I was allowed to board with my backpack, handbag, and full-face helmet attached t o my backpack, so they weren’t too strict with cabin allowance, but pretty strict with suitcase weight.

I highly recommend packing early – my suitcase burst at 5am at the zip and unravelled for good. Bit of a panicky moment that I can laugh about now, but only because the friend who was dropping me at the airport gave me hers for the trip! No plastic wrapping or suitcase shops are open in T2 (charter flight terminal) at that time!

After Check in...

…You are free – until you board the plane.

Go grab that coffee at Starbucks, and if you haven’t already bought some lunch/ snacks, go to the bakery (before heading to border patrol) and stock up on food for the flight. Grab some drinks after security and you’re all set.

The flight itself is long (17.5 hours). Despite info saying otherwise, the inflight entertainment is working. However, ensure you bring your own food. Everyone gets the same across all classes and frankly spoken, it’s abysmal. While we were offered seconds, few wanted them, and you only get water, wine gums and cookies as snacks.

What is interesting though is the stories of the flight crew – due to Australian ridiculousness and denial that Covid is here to stay, their “tours” to get one flight to Australia take 43 days! Have a chat with them they’re friendly.

Also ensure you don’t go to the loo when 2 people are already queueing. You will be told of. Go early as the front and back toilets are reserved for crew.

Now try get some shut eye!

You will be given spare masks and garbage bags (to be precise, contaminated waste bags…) where you must deposit all your rubbish in for collection when the crew comes through.

Arrival in Darwin

Once you arrive in Darwin, 30 people at a time are allowed to leave the plane, collect their baggage  in an isolated hall and board the bus to Howard Springs.

If you’re in business class, you wait to disembark until all the baggage is off, so approximately 45 min after landing. If you’re at the back this can take up to 3 hours. Make sure you have enough water!!

Once on the bus, it’s about a 20 to 30min drive to Howard Springs quarantine. While onboard you will hear from and about the double masked and gloved staff (plus face shields and coats , because you know, we’re contaminated) before you arrive.

Upon arrival you get your room key and a sim card if you ordered one and can start the walk to your donga with your baggage trolley where a delicious salad will wait in the fridge upon your arrival.

It’s day 2 today for me, and so far, so good. I’ve got a long list of Howard Spring Hacks that will make your stay here quiet pleasant – stay tuned for my blog next week!

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