A Virgin Australia spokesman confirmed it had been approached by a charter broker to operate three flights for foreign students.
Enough crew members volunteered to operate the flights between Guangzhou and Brisbane, which could carry around 750 passengers in total.
An email sent to staff seeking volunteers, obtained by this masthead, said the airline was “still working with the client and Australian government authorities to coordinate the requisite approvals, so the schedule is still somewhat fluid”.
The University of Queensland, Queensland University of Technology, University of Sydney and Monash University said they had not chartered any student flights.
A spokesman for the University of Melbourne said the institution was “planning for a number of strategies and scenarios” and working with governments and other universities.
“No final decisions have been made,” the spokesman said.
University sources said there had been ongoing discussions with a range of airlines, including Qantas, Cathay Pacific and major Chinese carriers.
Crew on the Virgin flights would wear P2 face masks and gloves which would exempt them from self-quarantine on return to Australia, the email to staff says, but they would nonetheless be put on 14 days paid leave when they arrived home.
Virgin crew were told that people from Hubei province – the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak – would not be allowed on the flight, and that the risk of infection in Guangzhou was “very low”, accounting for less than 1.5 per cent of the COVID-19 cases in mainland China.
“We stand ready to assist, however operating these flights will depend on current travel restrictions,” the Virgin spokesman said.
“Should the flights proceed, we’ll work closely with the Australian government and health authorities on a range of measures to ensure the health and safely of passengers and our crew.”
Other airlines have also been approached about scheduling special flights to bring Chinese students to Australia when the ban lifts. Qantas boss Alan Joyce said last month his airline had been approached about resuming flights at short notice.
Under the current travel restrictions, foreign nationals cannot enter Australia for 14 days after leaving China, and Australian citizens and residents must self-isolate for 14 days after returning.
Business reporter at The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.