The first quarantine-free flight into New Zealand for 10 months is heading for Auckland Airport.
Air New Zealand flight NZ941 is due to land just after 11.10am - about 20 minutes late. For the first time since last April, passengers from the flight will pass through the arrivals area directly into the arms of loved ones.
While it is for now a one-way bubble, the first quarantine-free flight is seen as the forerunner of two-way air bridges with the Pacific Islands and Australia.
Scott Tasker, Auckland Airport's general manager aeronautical commercial, said it meant families could reconnect more easily.
Passengers from the flight
will use a streamlined Safe Travel Path, which separates them
from passengers arriving from other parts of the world.
"Air travel is important for trade, business or just heading off on an exciting adventure – and also for connecting friends and whanau for life's precious moments is what really makes it special," said Tasker.
While Auckland Airport has prepared to separate its international terminal into two self-contained zones – a health management zone for arrivals needing to go into managed isolation and quarantine, and a safe travel zone for arrivals from countries with which New Zealand has formed two-way, safe travel bubbles – these separated zones won't operate for the Cook Islands arrivals.
''The expectation of only two flights per week under the one-way, quarantine-free arrangement with the Cook Islands made a Safe Travel Path a practical interim step, following discussions with border agencies and government officials,'' said Tasker.
Air New Zealand will operate
Rarotonga on Wednesdays and Saturdays using an A321 aircraft.
Passengers will undergo health checks pre-flight at Rarotonga International Airport and in Auckland Airport on arrival.
They will also be required to wear masks inflight for the flights where one economy tickets (there is no business class) started at $419.
Tasker said allowing quarantine-free flights from a Covid-free country like the Cook Islands is a small, but important, first step in the recovery of the aviation and tourism sector.
"Taking a careful and staged, risk-based approach to re-opening the New Zealand border will be crucial in re-establishing regular, reliable air links with the Pacific Islands and beyond," Tasker said.
International passenger movements have been devastated by the pandemic.
''We are a long way from the 15,000 people that would have walked through our international arrivals doors daily this time last year, but what we've seen with domestic air travel is that people are keen to fly again when lockdown restrictions are lifted. We now have domestic travel volumes at around 60 per cent of what they were pre-Covid.''
Before the pandemic about 1.4 million people travelled to and from the Pacific Islands through Auckland Airport each year on eight different airlines.
Tasker said it would ''take some time'' to get those air connections re-established.
Air New Zealand chief customer and sales officer Leanne Geraghty said the airline had been encouraged by bookings since the announcement late last week.
Before returning to the Cook Islands passengers will need to undertake a Covid-19 test within 96 hours of their flight departing. The result must be negative. Travellers also must complete the exit health clearance process at Auckland Airport.
New Zealanders can't yet travel to the Cook Islands for holidays. Entry is limited to Cook Islanders and current holders of Cook Islands work and residence permits who meet that country's health entry requirements.
Work is underway on establishing a two-way travel bubble with Australia which could start as early as the end of March. New Zealanders can travel quarantine-free to New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory, Queensland and Victoria but coming in to this country they must complete 14 days in managed isolation or quarantine.
Auckland Airport has issued the following advice about today's arrival:
Can I come into the terminal to welcome my friend or family member?
Yes. The main international terminal car park – Car Park A – and the pick-up/drop-off areas are open.
Are taxis, shuttles and public transport operating?
Yes, you'll be able to catch a taxi, rideshare, SkyBus or Auckland Transport bus services to and from the international terminal. Please remember to wear a face mask on public transport or if requested by your driver.
What food outlets and retailers are going to be open?
Many retailers at the international terminal have closed or operate for limited hours since the Covid-19 outbreak.
Will duty-free be open for arriving passengers?
Duty-free stores aren't currently available for arriving passengers.
Should Cook Island arrivals use the NZ Government Covid-19 Tracer app?
Yes, it's important that everyone in New Zealand tracks:
Where they went.
When they went there.
Who they met.
Use the NZ Covid Tracer app with Bluetooth tracing turned on if possible.