Sydney airport has become the scene of tearful family reunions, with fully vaccinated Australians able to fly home and walk straight out of the airport for the first time in 583 days.
Many of the passengers who were onboard the first flights from Singapore and Los Angeles walked into the arrivals terminal shortly after 6am on Monday morning to be greeted by emotional family members and loved ones.
Returning Australians were handed Tim Tams and hakea pincushion flowers as they made their way through a crowd of reporters.
“I’ve got to get to my daughter, I’ve got to hold her,” one woman said as she pushed through the throng to embrace her daughter.
Carlie Boyd was one of the first Australians to push a trolley of suitcases into the arrivals hall – clearing the heavily sterilised customs area at 6.28am and breathing in the crisp Sydney morning air for the first time in more than three years.
Boyd’s brother Ryan Boyd and sister Clare Lyons had arrived at the airport before 6am with a balloon and sign to welcome her, and raced to hug her.
“It’s been pretty stressful, so just to be able to come home without having to go quarantine is huge,” Boyd said.
She had been living in New York, and after being unable to secure a flight home during the months of quarantine arrival caps, bought her Qantas ticket to Sydney three days ago.
She and her siblings planned to surprise their parents at their Blue Mountains family home.
“There were a lot of people on that flight who have loved ones who are about to die or had people who died this week, so for them to be able to get off the plane and go and see them straight away is pretty amazing,” Boyd said.
Other passengers Guardian Australia spoke to said there were only about 70 people on the first Qantas flight, and that many were visiting dying loved ones.
When Ethan Carter walked into the arrivals hall and on to Australian soil for the first time in two years, he had only one thing on his mind. His mother, Joy.
“I’m anxious and excited and can’t wait to see her.”
Carter, who lives in Chicago, said he was desperate to see his mother, who has fallen ill and been moved into permanent care.
“She’s in WA, so I don’t want to talk about their laws … I might not ever be let in,” he said. “I’m really scared and emotional because I really want to see my mum.” He choked up as he added: “The doctor said that she hasn’t got long.”
He then approached border officials to discuss how he could fly to Perth to quarantine before visiting his mother.
He also issued a plea to the Western Australian premier, Mark McGowan: “Mark, think of the people that are suffering mentally to see their family, that’s also a health issue … You’ve got to bring families together again, you have to – everybody needs to be together, it’s so important.
“We respect that you’re trying to be safe, but everyone needs to be together, please.”
Elsewhere in the arrivals halls, some were meeting new family members for the first time.
Moments after her son Robert walked out of the customs hall with his partner, Ivan, and daughter, Pia, Deb d’Apice picked up her two-year-old granddaughter, held her up to her face, and stared into her eyes.
“It’s fabulous, I just feel fabulous,” she said.
Upstairs at the departure gates, travel-hungry Australians were gathering to make the most of the international travel freedoms that also came into effect on Monday.
After hearing that international trips would be allowed without an exemption – and knowing tht she would not have to quarantine on her return – Nicole Forrest booked tickets with United Airlines to travel to Mexico with her daughter, 12-year-old Olive.
They will fly through Los Angeles before travelling to Tulum, where the pair from Cronulla are planning to enjoy beaches and visit local sites.
“It’s fucking exciting,” Forrest said. “It’s going to be a spiritual experience.”
Olive said she was most excited to sample the food in Mexico.
Miad and Zahra Zandabi were flying to Boston, where they are moving to for a job that Miad organised more than a year ago but for which they had been unable to secure exit approvals.
“To be honest, we’re sad to be leaving Australia, but after the lockdown it’s very exciting to start anew,” Miad said. The Pagewood couple have family overseas, and hope to be able to visit them more easily.
Melanie Carrier posed for a photo at the Sydney departures sign before farewelling her partner, Richard Peake, and walking to her flight’s departure gate. She is travelling to visit family in Montreal who she hasn’t seen for more than two years.
“I just want to be able to go home,” she said. “We’ve missed weddings and birthdays, and I want to hug my parents again.”
The experience of dropping someone off at departures felt strange to Peake, who noted that there was none of the typical congestion and parking shortages of pre-pandemic days.
While airline officials reported queues in the international terminal being the longest they’d been all year, the airport is far from its full capacity. On Monday there will be 16 international flight arrivals and 14 departures, up from the average of 10 arrivals and departures each day since July last year. But while most arriving flights have been limited to 10 passengers, flights on Monday had no limits on how many vaccinated passengers they could carry.
As Australians walked into the arrivals area and into the arms of their loved ones, airline executives and politicians held press conferences. Most struggled to hold the attention of media, who were instead focused on speaking to travellers.
“Today Sydney has reopened Australia to the world,” said the New South Wales tourism minister, Stuart Ayres.