‘I am here in desperation’: lines snake around Australian passport office amid fears of missing flights | Australia news

Wrapped up warm against the winter cold, Fiona Brandt could be found on Tuesday afternoon sitting on a camping chair outside a nondescript office building in central Sydney.

She had been there since 6 am and was frustrated. “You’re in no man’s land here, just waiting, waiting, waiting,” she said. “There’s no doubt there are people here who will miss their flight.”

Brandt was one of the hundreds of people queueing outside the Sydney Passport Office waiting to pick up, renew or enquire about what had happened to their passports.

At 1 pm, two lines – one for inquiries and the other for passport pickups – could be seen wrapping around the building to an intersection between Little Regent and Lee streets several hundred meters away.

Many in line had put in their applications weeks or months before. But a combination of Covid-induced staff shortages and an increased demand following the reopening of the international border had led to delays and chaos in the system, which show no signs of abating.

Surging travel demand and staff shortages have led to delays in passport processing and long queues outside the Sydney Passport Office. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Brandt was hoping to travel to New Zealand on Monday and planned to renew her son’s passport well before her departure date but said she had a niche query that required human assistance. She said days of “continually ringing from 8 am to 5 pm” failed to get her anywhere, with the phone line often cutting out before even ringing.

The least they could do is put in portable toilets. Bobby Omran

“I finally managed to get through to somebody last Wednesday who started the fast-tracking for my son and told me: ‘Someone will call you in 48 hours so you can make the payment over the phone’, but till now I have not got the call, and now I am here in desperation before I fly out.”

Australian passport

Brandt said even if she got through, she would likely have to return at 5 am the next day to complete the process. She had found comfort in the camaraderie with others in line bonding over their frustration. Many had set up camping chairs, and group of strangers sat in circles chatting in the courtyard before the office.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said there was an ‘unprecedented high demand for its passport services’ following the reopening of borders. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

Bobby Omran, who had come to pick up his daughter’s passport, said he and his fellow queuers had been saving each other’s spots so they could go to the bathroom and extend their car parking.

“Seriously, the least they could do is put in portable toilets. We have had to go to McDonald’s and KFC across the road,” he said.

Like Brandt, Omran had attempted to apply for a new passport well in advance, applying to both his children at the start of April. But after only receiving his son’s ticket, he came to the office to inquire about his daughter’s.

“Last Tuesday, I arrived at quarter to five in the morning. And there was a lady with two newborn twins. She was waiting in the cold. Do you know what time she got in? Just before me at two o’clock. This is not a system,” he said.

After finally getting in, Omran said he was shocked to discover his daughter’s passport had not been touched. He was told to return on 21 June and given a small scrap paper with the date and the officer’s number in case he forgot or needed help.

Lines wrap around the building on Tuesday, extending several hundred meters away. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

A spokesperson from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said “unprecedented high demand for its passport services” following the reopening of borders had caused some pressure on the system. However, the vast majority of applications were still being delivered within a six-week timeframe.

“So far this financial year, the Australian Passport Office (APO) has issued over 1.3 million passports, which is more than double the total number we gave during the previous financial year (603,464 in 2021). The APO has published over 1 million passports since 1 November last year.

“We normally receive between 7,000–9,000 applications per working day. Currently, we are receiving 13,000–17,000 applications per working day.”

The spokesperson said it was normal for multiple applications lodged by one person to arrive at different times as all applications were assessed individually. They also recommended people in a hurry use the priority service, which they say would have passports ready for collection or delivery within two days.

However, as Peter Clarke discovered, things are often less simple in practice. Clarke and his wife had renewed their passports ahead of a trip to Fiji to celebrate his wife’s 70th birthday. Despite their preparations, they found themselves waiting in line since 8 am.

Peter Clarke and his wife wait in line to collect their passport before a trip to Fiji. Photograph: Blake Sharp-Wiggins/The Guardian

“I’m just here to collect a passport sent here in error. We asked for it to be sent home through certified mail. Mine arrived, but my wife is here. No idea why. And we put them together on the same piece of paper. So they are creating their problems, to be honest with you,” Clarke said.

In an interview with ABC radio, the assistant minister for foreign affairs, Tim Watts, said the current chaos resulted from the previous government’s failure to plan for an “expected” surge post-lockdown.

He said the government had now committed 70 extra staff in call centers, with 320 more to be added next week and 300 staff members for processing. Watts promised to have an additional 1,100 staff by September and said concierge services were planned to help the lines move faster.

For now, however, an alternate option was available to those with the funds. “Line up for you” services on Airtasker have become popular for getting around the dreaded wait. For $150, people can opt to have someone take their place in line for four hours while they do their business. The contractor the Guardian spoke to was almost booked out for the week. It may not be the best solution, but it may be the only one available for those with work and family commitments.

Bella E. McMahon
I am a freelance writer who started blogging in college. I am fascinated by human nature, politics, culture, technology, and pop culture. In addition to my writing, I enjoy exploring new places, trying out new things, and engaging in conversations with new people. Some of my favorite hobbies are reading, playing music, making crafts, writing, traveling, and spending time with my family.