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Aussies among travellers stranded after sheikh commandeers plane

Published: (Updated: ) in Australian News by .

When Greta* and her husband were told they no longer had seats on their international Etihad flight home the reason sounded absurd – a sheik had commandeered the entire plane.

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When Greta* and her husband were told they no longer had seats on their Etihad flight home the reason sounded absurd - a sheik had commandeered the entire plane.

The Australian couple had been holidaying in rural Morocco on an Intrepid tour when news filtered through Europe was closing its borders. The deadly coronavirus they had only read about was spreading. They would soon witness the traumatic fall-out and incredible acts of human kindness.

"We had our tickets and we decided to come back to Marrakesh a bit earlier. We got an inkling of it (borders closing) about four days before," Greta told nine.com.au.

"There was no sense of real urgency at that stage."

The Sydney woman and her husband Robert* were due to start their trip home from their month-long jaunt on March 16, flying first out of Casablanca for Abu Dhabi before switching to an Emirates flight back to Sydney.

Passengers line up to board one of the few flights out of Morocco, in Marrakech, Thursday, March 19, 2020.

A day later on March 17 the Australian government advised Australians wanting to return home to do so as soon as possible.

"We got down there (Casablanca airport) early. We were lining up for four or five hours," she said.

As Greta waited alongside hundreds of travellers, the airport proved a somewhat eerie sight.

"We were very close to the front of the queue. There was no one at the counter, no help desk, there was no booths open accept for Air France," she recalled.

To pass the time, the couple chatted with a young Australian traveller queuing in front of them.

She had shyly mentioned both of her parents work in hospitals and they had beaconed her home.

When they were closer to the front of the queue, a man in an Etihad uniform told them their flight was no longer considered "commercial".

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"(He) said the sheiks were taking home their staff and their workers back to Abu Dhabi," Greta said.

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"I stood there and pointed, I have a ticket booked," Robert said.

"And he continued with the rhetoric… this is no longer a commercial flight and your ticket is no longer valid… he did tell us to stand to one side as they might have 20 seats… but they had no intention of letting any of us on the flight."

Nine.com.au has contacted Etihad for comment on the couple's claims.

Before the panic

When it became clear they wouldn't be boarding their original flight home, Greta, Robert and a few other travellers tried to track down food and accommodation in Casablanca for the night.

The young Aussie traveller headed back to her hostel. She had been travelling for a year so was contently self-reliant.

"We felt like the outcast there. My big concern was there were people camping out at the airport, older and younger people. No one is reporting on it," Greta said.

"The WiFi and computers were all down and you couldn't even receive information, there were no boards going up.

"You got the cancellation slides, there was nobody telling you.

"You didn't know whether to go back to another airport."

It was the next day the travellers realised after missing their flight home they faced being stranded for 14 days on foreign soil.

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With their existing tickets deemed useless, they would also have to fork out thousands to get home.

Greta said one couple she met during the ordeal spent close to $20,000 rebooking cancelled flights.

Greta had days earlier registered with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) and Australian consulate in Morocco as a precaution.

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She would later learn the embassy had been closed.

After flights started to be cancelled, she said she heard little from DFAT.

There was the odd message urging Australians to wash their hands and get on the next available flight. It only compounded the situation.

"There were people who had no idea what to do and they had no money," she said.

"There were no flights…. You couldn't get on any… there was no alternative offered. You couldn't contact them."

Nine.com.au understands there are more than one million Australians living and working overseas, with more than 200,000 Australian citizens and permanent residents returning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Regular flights in and out of Morocco have stopped, but the Australian Embassy in Morocco is in contact with Australian citizens who remain in the African country.

A DFAT spokesperson told nine.com.au any Australian requiring urgent consular assistance can contact DFAT's Consular Emergency Centre.

"We strongly encourage all Australians who remain overseas to read and subscribe to Smarttraveller and follow local Embassy/High Commission social media accounts for the most up-to-date information on changing circumstances in their region," the spokesperson said.

Getting home

For the next five days Greta said all the information she and Robert received about possible flights out were from a WhatsApp group set up by people from her tour and their Intrepid tour guides.

Word had gotten around that there were flights leaving from Marrakesh, an almost three-hour drive away.

She said Intrepid had hired two buses and would ferry tourists, free of charge, to the airport.

They were told to wait and "be prepared to move".

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Despite having finished their tour, Greta and Robert were offered seats on a bus.

Once on board, a tour guide offered their phone as a hot spot so tourists could start booking plane tickets.

When they arrived at Marrakesh airport, they faced another challenge: more queues and the computer systems were down.

Airline staff were handwriting thousands of tickets.

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Acts of kindness

The sight of an 84-year-old man in the airport sobbing stays in Greta's mind.

He had been travelling back and forth from the UK to Morocco over the years, working on boats.

The cancelling of flights had left him penniless.

Another couple, Canadians, were struggling in the airport queue with booking flights.

Robert had offered to help, working with them to book tickets on his phone.

Yet, when it came to emailing them the tickets, they didn't have an email.

"You've got to look at older people who don't know and rely on travel agent… young kids who travel on the smell of an oily rag… a lot of the people didn't have the finances," Greta said.

Like Greta and Robert, the elderly man would eventually make it onto a Ryanair flight to London later that day.

An English woman, a stranger, had paid for his ticket.

On their Emirates flight back to Australia, Greta and Robert witnessed further acts of kindness when airline crew happily whisked snacks and water out for passengers who hadn't eaten in days as they had run out of money.

The Australian couple are now self-isolating at home. On Monday, they received an email from DFAT offering assistance for those stranded in Morocco.

*Names have been changed.

Contact reporter Kate Kachor at kkachor@nine.com.au.

Source: 9News https://www.9news.com.au/national/coronavirus-australian-travellers-among-tourists-stranded-in-morocco-after-sheik-commandeers-plane/7ee7a76b-9491-4a70-b569-c83d5330ce1d

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