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A group of Australians say they were stranded in a US airport after their plane broke down and they were unable to get a new flight due to coronavirus rules.

Several passengers told they had to get off the United Airlines plane leaving San Francisco for Sydney last night after the plane suffered a mechanical failure.

Passengers said they were told they couldn’t transfer to the next available flight.

Ben Kalman’s partner on the nearly empty plane, before the passengers were forced off. (Supplied)

The group had already been counted under Australia’s strict ‘flight limits’ rule, which limits the number of people returning home.

They were then told that they were not allowed to travel on the next scheduled United flight.

Only 6,290 people a week can fly to Australia, where they will then be quarantined for two weeks, which costs around $ 3,000 for one person and $ 5,000 for a family.

Ben Kalman, 34, a passenger on the plane, was told he had to pay more than $ 30,000 for business class tickets for himself and his partner, or wait until next year to get a cheap flight.

He told that he gave up his work at home and tech in San Francisco, where he has lived and worked for eight years, to return to Sydney with his American girlfriend to be closer to family.

Kalman said the airline told passengers that the Australian government said they are not allowed to take the next flight.

Like this morning, United Airlines said permission has been given for stranded passengers to fly home today or tomorrow.

“Last night United Flight 863 from San Francisco to Sydney was canceled due to a mechanical problem,” a spokeswoman told

“We received approval from the relevant government authorities to waive Australia’s capacity restrictions.

“We are reaching out to customers to notify them and to help them schedule their ride home.”

United Airlines planes at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco. (AP)

Kalman said he was “exasperated and frustrated” by the ordeal.

“We sat on the track for two hours, three hours, until 2 am,” he said.

“There was a mechanical failure. They took everyone.

“They said they contacted the Australian government to try to get special permission for 30 people to be on the next United flight.”

“Eventually we heard that the government had said no, that they would not give us a special permit.

“There were a lot of angry people.

“I’m still processing how silly the situation is. I’m exasperated and frustrated.”

Another Australian on the flight, Celia Mortlock, asked for help on social media this morning.

Facebook post about the flight to San Francisco (Facebook)
Passengers on a flight are escorted to buses waiting to go to the hotel quarantine at Perth airport. (Getty)
Yesterday prime minister Scott Morrison told a Senate investigation The return of Australians stranded abroad during the pandemic is a federal government priority, but significant obstacles remain.
Morrison admitted that this may not be possible and said quarantined hotel capacity run by state governments was proving challenging.

Deputy Labor Director Kristina Keneally, who has been campaigning for more Australians to return home, shared posts online about the flight.

“This failure seems to be happening live, right now, for 30 Australians in San Francisco.”

DFAT has been contacted for comment.

Contact journalist Sarah Swain: [email protected]

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