Air New Zealand has been "run off our feet" as thousands of Kiwis snap up Australian airfares with the launch of the transtasman travel bubble on April 19.
Airline chief executive Greg Foran said the three most popular destinations were Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne, but fares were also flying out the door for the likes of Perth, Hobart and the Sunshine Coast.
"We're pumped, isn't it terrific news for Air NZ? It's been a long time coming," Foran told Newstalk ZB's Heather du Plessis-Allan. "There is plenty of demand, plenty of places to go, it's terrific."
Foran himself was booking a flight to Sydney to see his three children, including NRL rugby league star Kieran, who plays for Manly.
One-way Air NZ fares between Auckland and Sydney from April 19 are selling for as low as $282, for a seat only and no luggage. A return flight a week later is selling for $355 on the same terms.
Foran said the airline was providing about 50 per cent of pre-Covid capacity, and hoped that might soon get closer to 100 per cent. "We're ready to fly when our customers are ready to fly."
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Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced today the much-anticipated transtasman travel bubble finally has a start date.
Quarantine-free travel between New Zealand and Australia can begin in less than two weeks, at 11.59pm on Sunday, April 18.
Ardern and Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins this afternoon confirmed that all the conditions for the bubble have been met.
"The director-general of health considers the risk of transmission of Covid-19 from Australia to New Zealand is low and that quarantine free travel is safe to commence," Ardern said.
Ardern said this has not been seen anywhere else in the world in a country that has an elimination strategy.
She said there are no countries in the world which are looking to keep Covid-free, while opening up a bubble. "We are world-leading ... We are opening at exactly the right time."
Today is a "new chapter in our recovery", Ardern said. "This is an exciting day."
She said in many ways, we will treat Australia like a region of New Zealand, when it comes to the alert level settings.
She said the settings "broadly" follow the alert level settings already in place in New Zealand.
Flights from an Australian state would be paused if there was a lockdown in said state, she said.
She said these precautions are not based on "hypotheticals", but are based on things which have happened in the past.
But she warned that quarantine-free travel will not be what it was pre-Covid 19.
"Those undertaking travel will do so under the guidance of 'flyer beware'."
She said the number one priority on this has been "public safety".
"We have taken the time to get this right."
There will be no support from Government if anyone is stuck in Australia. "We are asking people to simply prepare."
Anyone in New Zealand from Australia will be required to provide their New Zealand contact details, she said.
If any airport is not ready for the bubble to start, they will not be allowed to receive travellers, Ardern said.
She said that travellers will need to plan for the possibility of having travel disrupted if there is an outbreak.
And, just as there are alert level settings for managing cases in New Zealand, there will now be a framework for managing New Zealanders in the event of an outbreak in Australia.
This involves three possible scenarios: "Continue, pause, suspend."
To be eligible to travel to or from New Zealand on a quarantine-free flight, people must not have had a positive Covid-19 test result in the previous 14-day period.
As well as this, they must not be awaiting the results of a Covid-19 test taken during that 14-day period, Covid-19 Response Minister Chris Hipkins said.
"When those in Australia decide to come to New Zealand, they will be making a booking on a green zone flight.
"That means that there will be no passengers on that flight who have come from anywhere but Australia in the last 14 days."
He added that travellers will also be flown by crew who have not flown on any high-risk routes for a set period of time.
And those who do fly will be required to wear a mask on their flight – as is the current requirement.
Ardern said there has been "quite a lot" of preparation needed for this announcement - especially from airlines.
She said school holidays were not the basis of the Government's decision.
Hipkins said the airlines have told him they need around three weeks' notice - but he had told them they might not get that. So, he said, they had been getting ready early.
Travellers will also be asked to download and use the NZ Covid Tracer app while in New Zealand – but that will not be required.
"We will also be undertaking random temperature checks of those arriving as an added precaution," Hipkins said.
He estimated that the bubble will free up 1000 to 1300 rooms per fortnight within MIQ.
"Of these, we will retain roughly 500 spaces as contingency should they be needed for the transtasman arrangement," Hipkins said.
There are also a small number of facilities that the Government considers to have only been suitable for travellers in quarantine from low-risk countries.
"With the opening of travel, we will look to decommission these facilities – but in the meantime we are considering whether they could be used for other low-risk countries, such as the Pacific Islands.
"As a result of this, we do not anticipate a large number of vacant quarantine spaces to come on stream," he said.
"There will, however, still be thousands of spaces in MIQ for Kiwis. That's how we have helped 130,000 safely return home through our managed isolation facilities."
Ardern said, through the ticketing system, Kiwis will always be able to return home.
Ardern told Scott Morrison last night that Cabinet would be making a decision today.
They also talked about when Morrison can come to New Zealand - she said she hoped that would be very soon.
She wants to take him to a place that "puts New Zealand on the map", which is somewhere that had been impacted by the border closers.
Hipkins said Bloomfield has thought of Australia as a "low-risk country" for some time now.
Asked why Australians should visit New Zealand, Ardern said: "Because we are safe. We are a safe place to bring your family to visit."
She also said it's almost ski season - Australians, she said, love skiing.
Ardern said she had let Morrison know about the date before she addressed media this afternoon.
At a press conference this afternoon, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said: "This is the first of many more steps to come, I believe, as we get back to a normal, not only over the course of this year but beyond.
"I very much appreciate the arrangement the New Zealand government has come to today, we welcome them back as indeed Kiwis will be welcoming Aussies.
"That means more planes in the air, more jobs on the ground and in the air as well for our airlines."
Ardern said she was not concerned about airlines engaging in price gouging and was confident demand would be met.
The Government's next focus was opening two-way travel bubbles with the Pacific Islands, she said.
Beyond that, there were no firm plans on a bubble with other countries. That included Singapore, which had previously been mooted.
Cases from India
Hipkins said the Government is "still looking" at the situation in India. Twelve of 17 new Covid cases in MIQ today involve travellers from India who arrived here between March 30 and April 3.
He said there is "no evidence" of people providing fraudulent test results. But he said there was evidence of "widespread" Covid-19 in the sub-continent.
Those travellers have most likely been infected during transit, he said.
"We are concerned by those numbers," Ardern said on the number of people testing positive for Covid-19 on day one, after returning from India.
A win for business
BusinessNZ chief executive Kirk Hope said today's announcement is a win for businesses on both sides of the ditch.
"New Zealand's tourism and hospitality sectors have suffered the full force of Covid-19. Today's news will give them great encouragement that there is light at the end of the tunnel," Hope said.
"Australia is our second-biggest trading partner and New Zealand's largest international visitor market, accounting for almost half of all international visitor arrivals, so this is an important step in getting our key service sectors operating again."
Auckland Business Chamber CEO Michael Barnett said the announcement was a big moment for families, tourism and business, but safety had to remain a priority.
"This long-awaited travel bubble with our biggest trading partner is a pilot to prove we can open our borders and keep travellers and residents safe," he said.
"Opening up to Australia is an important step in boosting confidence and personal, business and trade ties but it will not be an instant panacea and will not herald a return to pre-Covid boom times.
"We can see the glimmer of a more stable future with vaccination rolling out, a containment and elimination response framework in place and application of new knowledge and better safeguards to reduce the uncertainty and risk of further lockdowns.
"We just have to remember that we are all in it together and everyone has to do their bit to keep us all safe."
Wellington Airport CEO Steve Sanderson said he was delighted with the news and eager to welcome travellers in both directions.
"We believe there is significant pent-up demand for travel to and from Australia. Families and friends who have been separated are eager to see each other; and there is increasing demand from Australia for safe international holiday options."
"As an extra layer of precaution we have worked to implement all Ministry of Health guidance to ensure everything possible is done to maintain a safe and hygienic environment for travellers. This includes increased cleaning, regular Covid-19 testing of all border-facing staff, thermal camera temperature checking of all arrivals, and signage to remind visitors of Covid requirements including use of the Covid tracer app."
Taupō District Mayor David Trewavas said the travel bubble offered a chance to support the tourist destination's post-Covid recovery.
"Prior to Covid-19, Australia was New Zealand's largest international visitor market, making up for almost half of all international visitor arrivals and spending $2.7 billion in 2019," he said.
"That affords us many opportunities to tap into that market once again, particularly coming into another ski season, with 71 per cent of all international arrivals who skied being Australian."
Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum (ANZLF) co-chair Ann Sherry said the announcement was wonderful news for the 600,000 New Zealanders living in Australia who will now be able to travel home to see families and friends and share important occasions.
"It is also great for all the Australians who are keen to have a holiday in New Zealand, and New Zealanders wanting to holiday in Australia without going through quarantine on their return. We expect there will be significant pent-up demand. We hope that tourism companies on both sides will benefit from the resumption of quarantine free travel."
Expert says it's a positive step
Covid-19 modeller Professor Shaun Hendy said the bubble's opening marked a "significant milestone" in our pandemic response.
"Given that Australia has also managed a successful elimination strategy and have excellent surveillance systems in place, travellers from Australia currently pose little risk," he said.
"Should an outbreak occur in one of the Australian states we would learn about it quickly and our government would have time to take steps to manage travel from any affected region."
Nonetheless, Hendy said anyone travelling to Australia should be aware that their plans could be disrupted by outbreaks on either side of the Tasman.
"Both countries have had failures at MIQ facilities from time to time, and when this happens, travel restrictions may need to be brought back in," he said.
"Travellers should be prepared for an extended stay or to self-isolate or quarantine on return."
Furthermore, he added that allowing quarantine free travel from Australia would also open up spaces in our MIQ facilities for travellers from other, higher-risk countries.
"I would suggest that Government take this opportunity to consider retiring some facilities, including those that have no exercise space on site or those that have proved more difficult to manage," he said.
"This might still see an increase in MIQ places for Kiwis returning home from other parts of the world, while managing the overall risk at the border.
"Overall, the opening of a travel bubble with Australia is a positive and welcome step, which reflects the success that both countries have had in managing the virus."