Qantas has announced it will ground all its international flights and temporarily stand down two-thirds of its 30,000 staff until the end of May.

The cutbacks, announced on March 19, come as Australia’s biggest airline reels from a massive downturn in travel due to coronavirus.

Qantas international flights will be suspended from the end of March until May.

“With the Federal Government now recommending against all overseas travel from Australia, regularly scheduled international flights will continue until late March to assist with repatriation and will then be suspended until at least the end of May 2020,” Qantas said in a statement.

All bookings on cancelled flights will be converted to a travel credit.

Affected customers will be contacted directly from Monday.

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See also: Is domestic travel still safe?

Earlier in the week Virgin Australia announced it will suspend all international flights for two and a half months from March 30 to June 14.

“We have entered an unprecedented time in the global aviation industry, which has required us to take significant action to responsibly manage our business while balancing traveller demands and supporting the wellbeing of Australians,” Virgin Australia managing director Paul Scurrah said in a release to the ASX.

What does this mean for Australians overseas who are keen to get home?

DFAT’s advice to citizens abroad is “if you’re already overseas and wish to return to Australia, we recommend you do so as soon as possible by commercial means … You may not be able to return to Australia when you had planned to.”

Off the back of this advice – and with many countries closing borders – a number of Australians abroad are concerned they will have difficulty getting home with the flight cancellations.

In a statement, Qantas reiterated it would continue with regularly scheduled international flights until late March to assist with repatriation efforts.

The best bet for any Australian overseas who is keen to return is to try booking online, rather than attempting to contact the call centres, which are already overwhelmed.

To make life easier, try a website like Webjet or Skyscanner to see all your different flight options at once. There may be an airline operating that you hadn’t considered.

You may also want to book soonish – due to demand, flights are becoming increasingly expensive. At the time of writing a one-way ticket from LAX to Melbourne on Qantas next week was $1700-plus.

Qantas helping Australians get home

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Qantas was working with the federal government to ensure flights were available for Australians who needed to get home “as soon as possible”.

Qantas CEO Alan Joyce also flagged the possibility of rescue missions to bring Australians stranded overseas home.

“If we can find locations where there are enough Australians to get them on the aircraft … [a possibility is to] get them to hubs and get them home,” he said.

Joyce flagged Los Angeles, San Francisco and Johannesburg as areas with a large number of Australians.

“In theory you should be able to get everyone back,” he said. “We still have the aircraft and the people.”

He also said the government should help fund the flights, adding “we can’t burn cash – we’re trying to help as much as we can.”

Call centres are being bombarded

Airlines are being inundated with calls and are pleading with customers to be patient as customer service lines are bombarded with anxious travellers after the airlines cut flights.

Many travellers are also trying to take advantage of the opportunity many airlines are giving in regards to more flexible cancellation policies (i.e. cancel an upcoming flight and receive a travel credit to use at a later date). This has put increased pressure on the already impacted call centres.

Virgin has taken to social media to assure desperate customers “we’re going to get you sorted” – adding “please be patient with us.”

The airline was already struggling to keep up with the high volume of customers calls, but now the situation has been made worse by some of its call centres being shut down due to government restrictions in the Philippines. Tigerair’s call centre was also affected by the situation in the Philippines.

“Please bear with us while our team in Australia process your inquiry,” the airline said on another social media post, also asking only customers with a bookings within the next 48 hours to contact customer service.

On Twitter, Qantas said “We have a huge amount of calls coming in to our call centre and messages via social media.

“To make sure we can get back to everyone, we’re responding to those travelling within the next 72 hours first”.

If you are overseas and you need emergency assistance, visit Smartraveller’s consular resources page.