Air Vanuatu has delayed repatriation flights, which were due to commence tomorrow, while its Covid-19 safety protocols are reviewed.
The airline had published a schedule of flights for "the second phase" of repatriations, saying it was aware of more than 2300 ni-Vanuatu and permanent residents stranded overseas.
However, the airline issued a statement today announcing the schedule had been delayed, following a meeting with the National Disaster Advisory Committee.
"We are putting on hold the international repatriation flights until NDMO (National Disaster Management Office) is satisfied with the airline's in-flight Covid-19 protocols and measures submitted on Monday, 10th August and currently under review by Vanuatu Health."
The statement also denied rumours the flights had been cancelled over unpaid landing fees.
"The decision to delay these services is beyond our control and it is absolutely not caused by any financial reasons," Air Vanuatu acting chief executive Joseph Laloyer said.
"All our flights have been approved by the regional airports and authorities concerned to operate as per the published schedule."
More than 1500 ni-Vanuatu and permanent residents were brought home in the first phase of repatriations between May and July. That phase was halted to help authorities manage quarantine and screening processes.
For the second phase, Air Vanuatu spokesperson Paul Pio said the NDMO was reviewing repatriation procedures established under the State of Emergency (SoE) enacted in response to the pandemic. The SoE was recently extended until the end of the year.
"To make sure that we don't bring Covid-19 back into the country, the National Disaster Management Office is currently reviewing all the health protocols that we have in place, "Pio said.
"They will have this week to review it and finalise with the Vanuatu public health authority. They have advised that they will make a decision on Monday 17 August."
"All those people that have booked on those repatriation flights - we will advise them on the next available flight."
Director of Vanuatu's Department of Foreign Affairs Yvon Basil said the government had yet to decide whether it would provide financial support for the second phase of repatriations, as it did the first.
"This is something we have yet to discuss with the government... For the first phase the government has supported the flights that brought in our stranded nationals with our development partners, and government has also provided financial assistance for charter flights," Basil said.
"But for this second phase we are going to use available commercial flights, and those people who want to return can book directly with the airline."
However, approval for repatriation must first be sought through Vanuatu's overseas missions, Basil said.
"We will only consider names that have come through our high commissions and consulates."
Pio said Air Vanuatu was aware of 2000 ni-Vanuatu in New Zealand that wanted to return home as well as 200 in Australia, most of whom were seasonal workers.
There are also 90 students stranded in Fiji and 20 citizens in New Caledonia, he said.
The new schedule of repatriation flights would be issued with a choice of departure dates for passengers, to provide flexibility, Laloyer said.