Senator Bridget McKenzie – Estimates questions regarding flight evacuations for Australians out of Israel and Gaza

photo of Senator Bridget McKenzie
October 26, 2023

Minister, are you able to table a full list of the flights, the carrier, the number of Australians? I have asked similar questions in Transport, just to have clarity around a full list of flights—just the repat, defence and charter.

Senator McKENZIE: I’d like to also thank DFAT officials and our defence personnel for working around the clock to keep our people safe but also to respond to what is a civilisational conflict in the Middle East at the moment.

Minister, are you able to table a full list of the flights, the carrier, the number of Australians? I have asked similar questions in Transport, just to have clarity around a full list of flights—just the repat, defence and charter. We talk about charter. What were the charter organisation, defence et cetera, the number of passengers and the split of passenger numbers between Australians and—

Senator Wong: Pacific islands et cetera.

Senator McKENZIE: Yes.

Senator Wong: Yes, we can do that. I don’t think we can do that right now.

Senator McKENZIE: No. That’s why I’m very comfortable for that to be—

Mr Maclachlan : We could do some of it right now, if you want.

Senator McKENZIE: No. I’ve got half of it from the department of transport, I’ve heard a little bit more this morning, and I’m confident there’ll be a table somewhere that can be created.

Senator Wong: Yes. Why don’t we just take it on notice and perhaps give you a consolidated list?

Senator McKENZIE: That would be wonderful.

Senator Wong: The numbers obviously—

Senator McKENZIE: Yes, they bounce around; we appreciate that. Are there any Australians who registered and have not been able to secure a flight home?

Senator Wong: Registered? I don’t know if you would—

Senator McKENZIE: You know how we opened the registration—

Senator Wong: I did go to this before—what registration actually means—but I think you might have been doing something else. I’ll hand over to Mr Maclachlan.

Mr Maclachlan : At the moment—as I mentioned, it’s useful for numbers—we have 1,275 people registered in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, a third of whom, 434, have told us they’re registering for information only. Then, total registered Australians departed is 1,930. That’s the update.

Senator McKENZIE: Through a range of means, including commercial flights.

Mr Maclachlan : Correct, not solely on our flights. Operationally, it’s quite labour intensive. People register. They might indicate they want to go. Our officers working overnight will call them up or email them to find out what their plans actually are. Some will indicate they want to leave, but they don’t turn up to the airport for whatever reason. Some will indicate they’d like to leave, but they’ve got family to look after; they’ve got commitments. So it’s conceivable that there will be people who have indicated they’d like to leave but, for a whole range of reasons—

Senator McKENZIE: On any given day—

Mr Maclachlan : Yes, they may not be able to.

Senator McKENZIE: they can’t, for a variety of reasons.

Senator Wong: I think about it in non-bureaucratic terms. Registration is saying: ‘I want you to engage with me.’ And you may want to leave; you may not want to leave. This then means that, through these other engagement means—phones, emails, text messages—DFAT officials contact you to see if you are wanting to leave and they register you—I shouldn’t use that verb; I should use another. They put you on a flight manifest. Then there’s a big fall-off between registration and—

Senator McKENZIE: Yes, and I appreciate that. I now understand.

Senator Wong: There’s then a fall-off. I had one particular fight between those who say, ‘Yes, I do,’ but then decide not to come.

Senator McKENZIE: Yes, I’ve got it. Minister, we heard earlier that the DFAT crisis cadre taskforce was stood up on 8 October. Which airlines were approached to offer assistance in repatriating standard Australians and on what date?

Mr Maclachlan : We ran three procurement rounds on the commercial side. This is independent of the work we were doing with the ADF. We did one on 10 October, finalised on 13 October, one on 13 October, finalised on 16 October, and one on 17 October, finalised on 18 October.

Senator McKENZIE: These were open? Did DFAT approach any airlines prior to running an official procurement process?

Ms Spencer : We received a number of offers from a range of airlines.

Senator McKENZIE: Could you run me through those and the dates on which those offers were received?

Ms Spencer : Given the procurement process, I won’t go into details around the commercial carriers who were involved in that, but what I would say is we received a range of offers.

Senator McKENZIE: On what ground won’t you go through that? I’m asking which airlines approached DFAT to offer assistance in the middle of a crisis.

Senator Wong: Why don’t you ask us which airlines provided it?

Senator McKENZIE: I am asking which airlines approached DFAT.

Senator Wong: I know the information you want. We’re happy to provide—I think the list of the airlines on which you’re interested was actually—

Senator McKENZIE: I didn’t think it was a commercial issue.

Senator Wong: Can I finish please? I’m trying to be helpful. The airline you’re interested in was actually listed by Mr Maclachlan or Mr Jadwat.

Senator McKENZIE: Yes.

Senator Wong: We can talk about what airlines provided flights. I think what Ms Spencer is concerned about is giving too much information about the procurement process.

Senator McKENZIE: I asked prior to the procurement. I was very clear: ‘Prior to the procurement process being run’, which I understand was opened on the 10th. The assault on Israel began on the seventh. So I’m asking between the seventh and the 10th—

Mr Maclachlan : I’ll take it on notice.

Senator McKENZIE: Okay. And now I’m not allowed to go through the procurement process either for commercial reasons.

Senator Wong: The senator is entitled to ask about the outcome.

CHAIR: Is that what you’re after, Senator? It’s your question.

Senator McKENZIE: I know the outcome. That’s in the list you’re going to provide me on notice—who ran repatriation flights, how many, et cetera. My understanding is that Minister King rang Qantas and Virgin on the 10th. I’m asking if any airlines offered assistance—other than Qantas and Virgin, who both offered Minister King that support when she contacted them. I was told by the department of transport to come to this place because you’re the lead agency—

Mr Maclachlan : We are.

Senator McKENZIE: and that you would have the answers that they couldn’t provide.

Mr Maclachlan : I don’t have the answer in front of me, and I want to make sure I’m accurate. We were approached by individuals offering different services: ‘I’ve got a plane. We can put it on here.’ It was not just airlines; it was facilitators, if I can put it in those terms. I mentioned the three rounds of procurement. We obviously had Qantas, we had Qatar and we used Adagold.

Senator McKENZIE: Sorry, Adagold?

Mr Maclachlan : It’s a company we’ve used for other operations in the past. We were grateful for all three. Then of course, as I mentioned, Emirates assisted us with returning people from Dubai to Australia.

Senator McKENZIE: The department of transport advised that Minister King contacted Virgin and Qantas on the 10th. Was that at a request from DFAT or was that something the minister undertook on her own?

Mr Maclachlan : I don’t know.

Senator McKENZIE: Minister Wong?

Senator Wong: I’m not trying to obfuscate, but it has been a lot.

Senator McKENZIE: I appreciate that.

Senator Wong: I’d have to take on notice whether that was sought at a political level to complement the procurement process that they were engaged in—

Senator McKENZIE: So to kind of fast-forward engagement?

Senator Wong: Yes.

Senator McKENZIE: I get it.

Senator Wong: I remember—and this feels like an age ago, but it’s only two weeks ago—that we were concerned about how quickly some of the commercial options had fallen off. You might recall that there was also a security incident, which was publicly reported, at Ben Gurion Airport with a British Airways flight.

Senator McKENZIE: Yes. Sorry, can I just—

Senator Wong: I do remember—

Senator McKENZIE: I do appreciate. I also have limited time and I want to get through my questions.

Senator Wong: I just wanted to say that I’ll come back on that.

Senator McKENZIE: Thank you. Did Fiji Airways offer support?

Mr Maclachlan : I don’t recall Fiji Airways offering support, but Fiji Airways did organise a charter for some Fijian citizens. That’s the flight to which I referred that enabled 13 Australians—

Senator Wong: I think that was just a good opportunity. They had I think a pilgrim group there—

Senator McKENZIE: So the first evacuation flight was a Qantas flight on 14 October.

Mr Maclachlan : The 13th.

Senator McKENZIE: From 7 October, when the initial attack—sorry?

Senator Wong: I think that’s an Australian date.

Senator McKENZIE: Let’s make sure we get the right date.

Senator Wong: We’re operating in Australian dates.

Senator McKENZIE: Okay. From 7 October, when the initial attacks occurred, to 13 October, when the first Qantas flight departed, were there any alternative carriers or charter companies who indicated to the Australian government that they could repatriate our citizens sooner?

Mr Maclachlan : Not that I’m aware of. We were talking to Adagold during that week as well, and they of course came on board with the flights.

Senator McKENZIE: Ms Spencer?

Ms Spencer : I agree. I don’t think there was anyone that could go earlier. We went out with a request to market on 10 October, to three airlines. Some of the dates may have moved. For example, I think with Adagold they had expected they might be able to come earlier but, because of security situations, that shifted.

Senator McKENZIE: Who assessed that security situation? Was that on Defence’s advice or DFAT’s advice?

Mr Maclachlan : No. Airlines make their own judgements about security. With Australian airlines, of course, government agencies have a close relationship. You’ll recall that, during that week, we began with a fully functioned Ben Gurion Airport. As the week moved on and the understanding of the situation evolved, airlines were finding it increasingly difficult to get insurance to operate their aircraft. Adagold was in the fortunate position that they were able to have insurance to operate the two flights for which we contracted them.

Senator McKENZIE: Of the three procurement processes, we had three carriers for the first procurement?

Ms Spencer : That’s right.

Senator McKENZIE: How many for the second?

Ms Spencer : The second round was from Dubai to Australia. We had seven airlines approached there, and we received—

Senator McKENZIE: You approached them or they approached you?

Ms Spencer : We approached them. As Mr Maclachlan said, we received a whole range of options from a whole range of players.

Senator McKENZIE: And you sifted through them?

Ms Spencer : We went out to everyone who had written in and sought—

Senator McKENZIE: You went out to everyone?

Mr Maclachlan : We were being proactive.

Senator McKENZIE: I appreciate that, but you’ve had a lot of people being proactive with you. Have you narrowed that list down to who you were proactive back to?

Mr Maclachlan : As Ms Spencer has indicated, in the second round, from Dubai to Australia, we approached seven airlines—I don’t have the details here. We received quotes from four. Qatar Airways, as we know, put on a flight. In a third round, again from Dubai to Australia, we approached six airlines and received five quotes. Emirates was the provider there. In the case of Qantas, Qatar and Emirates, the provision was at no charge to the Commonwealth.

Senator McKENZIE: I wish they’d done that out of Wuhan. Were consular officials available to assist with the loading of passengers for each of these flights?

Mr Maclachlan : As the secretary indicated in her opening address, we surged staff forward to assist our key posts. We had consular officials and other staff on the ground in Tel Aviv, assisting with the boarding process there.

Senator McKENZIE: At the airport?

Mr Maclachlan : Yes. We had—

Senator McKENZIE: Were you actually aware—

Mr Maclachlan : We had the same in London and we had the same in Dubai.

Senator McKENZIE: Are you aware of people being refused to fly?

Mr Maclachlan : I’m not aware.

Senator McKENZIE: Ms Spencer?

Ms Spencer : I’m not aware of any. We had some individuals that we had to assist with getting on later flights. They were generally from the Pacific island community, and that was due to the challenges around visas on entry into Dubai.

Senator McKENZIE: What were the manifest requirements for the three airlines flying out in the first procurement?

Ms Spencer : In priority, Australian citizens and their families. We did offer assistance to other nationals and they had to have a right of entry into the third country.

Senator McKENZIE: Were you aware that Qantas had to have a finalised manifest 48 hours prior to departure?

Ms Spencer : Sorry, that they did require a finalised manifest? Yes, we’d been working with them throughout and meeting their deadlines on the manifests. As other colleagues have said, those manifests did change as people didn’t turn up to the airport and as others did try and turn up to the airport.

Senator McKENZIE: Correct, and there was zero flexibility from Qantas on that. Is that correct, Mr Maclachlan, or not?

Mr Maclachlan : I don’t know, Senator—

Senator McKENZIE: Will you check for me?

Mr Maclachlan : I’ll take it on notice.

Senator McKENZIE: I understand that that was the case.

Mr Maclachlan : The point I’d like to make, Senator, if I might—it’s a bit indulgent—but frankly, we’re very grateful for the—

Senator McKENZIE: We’re all grateful Australians are home safe, Mr Maclachlan, but it’s also my job to look at these sorts of things. Who cancelled the second Qantas flight? Was that DFAT or Defence?

Mr Maclachlan : Qantas.

Senator McKENZIE: Qantas cancelled that flight?

Mr Maclachlan : In consultation with us, of course. They had to come to their own—

Senator McKENZIE: Okay, thank you. I’ll pass my time to Senator Birmingham.

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