WELLINGTON – Air New Zealand (ANZ) flight NZ0245 to Sydney departed from Wellington Airport on Monday 19 April, the first scheduled international flight from the airport in over a year. The international terminal has been used for domestic flights during that time, with the duty-free store and immigration area cordoned off.
Since New Zealand’s borders closed in March last year, all International flights have had to land in Auckland and passengers have had to go into hotel quarantine. The establishment of a travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand means that trans-Tasman flights can now depart from Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown, and passengers won’t have to go into hotel quarantine on either side of the Tasman.
While in some respects it was back to business as usual, with duty-free, foreign exchange and the airline lounge in the international terminal now open again at Wellington Airport, there were some differences from the pre-Covid travel experience. Departure and arrival procedures are more complex due to the pandemic. Passengers need to complete a declaration at least 72 hours before they fly, stating that they have been in New Zealand for the preceding 14 days.
They also need to have not tested positive for COVID-19 during that time, nor to be waiting for the results of a test. Some Australian states have their own documentation which must also be completed in addition to the federal government declaration. Wearing masks is mandatory during the three-hour-long flights, apart from mealtimes. On arrival, the declaration documents are checked and there is health screening including temperature checking with a thermal camera.
When New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced the travel bubble, she noted the possibility that it could be suspended at any time, saying “Flyer beware”. Australian and New Zealand authorities have warned travellers to be prepared to stay longer if flights are cancelled due to a Covid-19 outbreak. If there was a major outbreak, travellers may even need to go into hotel quarantine at their own expense when they return to New Zealand.
The risk of disruption to travel plans and associated extra costs could be a disincentive to potential travellers, particularly those travelling for tourism rather than for business or family reasons. Because of this, it was widely believed that the first passengers were more likely to be travelling for family reasons. Air New Zealand expected three-quarters of their bookings to be for family and friends travelling to reunite. Wellington Airport’s celebrations for the reopening of international travel had a theme of reuniting
Australians and New Zealanders. “Welcome Whānau” (Welcome family) appeared on signs in International Arrivals and painted on the grass at the end of the runway. Banners around the airport said “Kia Ora” and “G’Day”, continuing the Australian and New Zealand theme.
The passengers I spoke to were all keen to reunite with family members who they hadn’t seen for 18 months to three years. They also trusted the government’s decision on the trans-Tasman bubble. Elizabeth was travelling to Melbourne to stay with her two daughters. She was not worried about a Covid outbreak, saying she trusted that the government had waited long enough. They had not let themselves be pressurised into opening up while it was still dangerous.
Another Melbourne-bound passenger, Margaret, was looking forward to visiting her sister and not thinking about what would happen if there was another outbreak. She said she had a high level of trust in the government and experts. She felt reassured after reading about modelling by Professor Michael Plank of the University of Canterbury, which showed a minimal risk of another Covid-19 outbreak.
A man travelling to visit family in Darwin via Melbourne was not worried about Covid. He considered himself well-prepared with a good supply of masks and he had completed the necessary documentation. He said emails from the airline had been very clear about what was required.
In the International Arrivals area, people were gathering to welcome the first flight into Wellington, Air New Zealand (ANZ) NZ0246 from Sydney. Apart from a few drivers waiting for business customers, most were waiting for a family. Some carried balloons, flowers, and welcome signs.
A Māori cultural group assembled just before the scheduled arrival time of 1 pm. They began by welcoming visitors, followed by a performance of traditional action songs. Although the flight landed 14 minutes late, the first passenger exited from Customs at 1:35 pm, racing straight into the arms of the waiting family as everyone else cheered. She was soon followed by many other passengers doing the same, with some reunions being very emotional.
While arriving and departing passengers today felt comfortable about taking an international flight, not all New Zealanders feel that way. Polls show that only about half of all New Zealanders are positive about the travel bubble. Wellington Airport addressed health concerns in its media release about the opening of the bubble, noting that it has prepared for post-Covid travel by implementing Ministry of Health guidance to ensure a safe and hygienic environment for travellers. This includes increased cleaning and regular Covid-19 testing of all border-facing staff. Signage has been placed around the terminal to remind visitors of Covid requirements and encourage the use of New Zealand’s Covid tracer app.
The airport also noted that “as the airport does not have any quarantine or longer-haul flights coming through the terminal, passengers can have peace of mind that Wellington Airport is an entirely “green zone”. This may be reassuring for some passengers, in comparison to Auckland Airport which is divided into a “green” zone for trans-Tasman flights, and a “red” zone for all other international flights.
Air New Zealand (ANZ) and Qantas (QFA) both scheduled return flights from Wellington to Sydney and Melbourne on the first day of the bubble. Although these appeared to be busy, fewer flights are scheduled initially. There will be 27 return flights from Wellington to Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane this week, run by Air New Zealand, Qantas and Jetstar. Wellington Airport expects this to increase to around 40 flights each week by the end of May. Virgin Australia will not be running trans-Tasman flights until October.
Prior to the pandemic, Wellington Airport received over 200,000 international arrivals each year. Today’s flights were a welcome start to international travel, but it will take some time to reach pre-pandemic numbers