Quarantine-free flights between Australia and New Zealand will take off on April 19, NZ Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern today confirmed.
Calling the long-awaited travel bubble "a new chapter" in the COVID era, Ardern said the risk of coronavirus being carrier from by travellers from Australia to New Zealand was now rated as low, "and any risk can be managed."
An early hint as to the start date came from the forward schedule of Air New Zealand, which over the weekend dramatically boosted its Australian roster beginning Monday April 19.
From a current baseline of just four Auckland-Sydney return flights this current week, Air New Zealand's timetable from April 19 shows a whopping 23 return flights.
April 19 sees a return of direct flights between Auckland and Perth – at four a week on the Boeing 787 - and from Wellington and Christchurch to Sydney, with Queenstown to Sydney resuming one day later, on April 20.
Overall, the Star Alliance member's rebooted trans-Tasman schedule will embrace eight Australian ports – Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth, Hobart, the Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast – with flights to Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Queenstown.
It's no accident that New Zealand's autumn school holidays commence on Saturday 17 April 2021.
Australia and New Zealand have long been each other’s number one travel destination: 2019 saw some 2.6 million residents of each country jetting back and forth across the Tasman, according to Stats NZ.
Qantas ramps up, Virgin holds back
Qantas' NZ timetable now lists a raft of New Zealand services, including – at the time of writing – an all-Airbus A330 roster of three daily Sydney-Auckland and Melbourne-Auckland flights.
There's also a new daily Gold Coast to Auckland service from April 19, with thrice-weekly Cairns-Auckland flights to follow “in time for the June long weekend” through to late July.
In addition, Qantas frequent flyers can use their points on every seat on every Qantas (and Jetstar) flight for the bubble's first three days, from Monday April 19 to Wednesday April 21.
However, Virgin Australia doesn't plan to put New Zealand back on its schedule until September, and then only with a handful of flights to Queenstown.
A spokesman for the airline said that "evolving border requirements ... add complexity to our business as we push ahead with plans to grow our core domestic Australia operations."
"For this reason, we have suspended the sale of most New Zealand services until 31 October 2021. A limited schedule for flights to and from Queenstown will remain available for booking from 18 September 2021."
Air New Zealand is also primed to unlock the doors of its international airport lounges in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth, Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch "when quarantine-free trans-Tasman travel restarts" the airline's Senior Manager Global Lounges and Valet, Alison Swarbrick, recently told Executive Traveller.
"We have been optimistically planning the reopening of our... international lounges since before Christmas."
Similar plans by Qantas, American Express and Plaza Premium remain under consideration.
"We'll reopen our international lounges as soon as there's enough commercial demand, particularly at Sydney and Melbourne, if they're the likely Australian ports" for travel bubbles, Qantas Chief Customer Officer Stephanie Tully enthused to Executive Traveller in December 2020.
How the travel bubble will work
Australian and New Zealand airports participating in the bubble would be divided into 'green zones' for travellers coming in from either country, and 'red zones' for passengers arriving from elsewhere in the world for transit or quarantine.
Bubble travellers won't be required to undergo pre-flight or on-arrival COVID tests, but will be subject to random temperature checks upon arrival in New Zealand.
Masks must be worn during the flight, and Australians will be asked to download and use the NZ COVID Tracer app while in New Zealand.
All the same, there's clearly a degree of risk and the possibility that travellers could be caught out in the sudden snap of a lockdown – even if it takes place in their home state while they are in New Zealand.
"People will need to plan for the possibility of travel being disrupted if there is an outbreak," Ardern cautioned.
"Once we know about a case in Australia we will have three possible responses when it comes to flights and access to our border, and we've captured these with a framework based on continue, pause, or suspend."
"For instance, if a case is found that is quite clearly linked to a border worker in a quarantine facility and is well contained, you'll likely see travel continue in the same way as you could see life continue if that happened here in Australia."
"If, however, a case was found that was not clearly linked to the border, and a state responded by a short lockdown to identify more information, we'd likely pause flights from that state in the same way we would stop travel into and out of a region in New Zealand as if it was going into a full lockdown."
"And if we saw multiple cases of unknown origin, we would likely suspend flights for a set period of time."