Richard Guilliatt, in The Australian Weekend Magazine 20-21 June 2020, where the title is
Simon Quinn is a 32 year old PhD student from Australia, studying Sanskrit living in Gurgaon 30km South West of Delhi. When the Indian government announced a sudden & draconian nationwide lockdown on 24th March, to halt the spread of Covid19 among the nation’s 1.38 billion people, he logged on to a chat forum for Aussies travelling in India on his lap top. Anxious messages were flooding in.
All regular flights to & from India had been stopped, hence 6000 Australians – tourists and Indian-Australians visiting family – were stuck with no exit plan. News reports on TV spoke of possible food shortages and showed Indian police beating people on the streets.
He had been living in India since 2017, and was semi fluent in Hindi being married to a local. Many Australians felt the situation was desperate – some running out of medications, some had flu like symptoms and others were effectively homeless as hostels shut down or hotels refused to take them.
Quinn launched an open-access spreadsheet on WhatsApp for them to register details. Within a week more than 1000 people had joined up, and he became de-facto administrator of a crisis line, assisted by a few other expats scattered around India. People expected that the Australian Government would organise charter flights to fly them back home similar to other European nations and Canada. The Australian High Commission posted videos recommending patience.
Quinn found out that Australia’s efforts at repatriation flights were floundering because Qantas & Virgin did not have direct flights to India. Then he discovered that a Brisbane firm, Monarc Global, who operate an internet booking system for charter flights, was offering to help stranded Aussies. Enterprising owner Royce Crown, had spotted news reports about the situation, and announced on his website that he was ready to help. Quinn spoke to Crown who put him in touch with Melbourne charter company owner Brendon Hempel.
Hempel, who mistakenly thought Quinn worked for the Australian government, threw himself into the task of costing the flights. He contacted Lion Air, the Indonesian airline, and worked out that renting an Airbus A330, with a full crew for a Delhi-Melbourne run would cost around $650,000 paid upfront. Seeing a WhatsApp video of a stranded Australian tourist trapped in a Delhi hotel room, running out of food, Hempel thought: “Bugger it, let’s do this, whether we recoup the money or not”
In Brisbane, Royce Crown had calculated that $2200 a ticket would probably get them above break-even if they filled a plane, so he and Hempel began making plans for two initial flights on April 10 and 16. Although Lion Air flew to India, Quinn still needed Indian government approval at the highest level. At the Australian end he needed both state and federal government approval to get his planes into Melbourne airport and the passengers checked through immigration and shepherded into their quarantine hotels.
The Australian government might have taken responsibility for the flights if not for Lion Air’s safety record, which had taken a hit in 2018 when one of its planes crashed in Indonesia killing 189 people. Quinn surmised the government would help him as long as it didn’t have to wear responsibility for the flights. Behind the scenes, Australian foreign affairs officials began smoothing his path with Indian aviation authorities and linking their computers to Monarc’s makeshift ticketing system. High commission staff began collecting details of passengers to pass them to Indian officials so police roadblocks would allow them to get through to the airport.
On April 8th, Quinn posted a notice on the Facebook page, regarding the flight on April 10th, with links to documents that he and his team had carefully prepared. By the following day all 444 seats had sold. The team could not celebrate this since the Easter Holiday meant that most of the ticket money would not arrive for days. Hempel was faced with the task of using his own bank account to pay Lion Air $1.3 million. Although feeling somewhat stressed, he pushed the button on the funds transfer.
Quinn’s FB page had become a teeming human multitude with multiple threads of inquiries, each a cacophony of questions. He was getting 2-3 hours sleep a night chained to his laptop, posting lucid explanations. Staff inside the High Commission were following it all with a certain sense of wonder. “We don’t know when the guy slept, he seemed to be answering questions at all hours” says one. “We have teams of people trained and paid to do this work; he took on the work voluntarily, dealing with incredibly anxious people, who were sometimes angry. We just really admired his ability to deal with it all.” Quinn is heroically understated. “I was in lockdown anyway, so didn’t have much going on. Once I started it, I felt like I had a responsibility.”
The first flight was an exercise in chaos due to airport delays, roadblocks (& even elephants) holding up passengers….but amazingly every one made it on to the plane, where Lion Air crew greeted them with hazmat suits, masks and goggles. Photos taken inside the plane show a happy group of passengers arriving in Melbourne 30 hours later. On April 19 & 20, three more Lion Air flights left India bearing Australian passengers, from Mumbai & Chennai. Five planes had brought 2013 people home and Quinn and team were ready to arrange more.
However the Australian government was now determined to organise its own flights, if only to save face. On April 23, it announced that it had put Qantas and Qatar Airways flights out of India, and Quinn and his team decided its work was done.
In the wash up, Royce Crown estimated his firm had lost about $50,000, paying a $51 refund to everyone on the first flight. Brendon Hempel’s firm made a small profit after paying $200 rebate to seniors and children under 10.
Quinn received absolutely no material reward, although one female passenger did suggest they get married and scores of people took to Facebook to shower him with praise and adulation.
“I had to give up my own life and routine for about six weeks but, all in all I made some lifelong friends and met some fascinating characters,” he says. “I guess it was a privilege, really, to help that many people”.