Air New Zealand now stands out as the airline with one of the toughest lines on vaccination and testing requirements but its boss Greg Foran says it is doing what its customers and staff want.
While Qantas requires vaccinations for international travellers and government regulations in other countries effectively mandate jabs for domestic flights, Air NZ stands out as the airline requiring them or a negative test for its entire operation.
From the middle of next month all Air New Zealand passengers will need to be vaccinated or provide proof of a recent negative test to fly on its domestic network. It has already announced that travellers on its international flights must be vaccinated from February.
The airline, by introducing its tough rule for domestic flights, has eased pressure on its Government owner which was facing calls for tougher rules from public health experts and worried residents in Covid-free areas of the country.
While airlines around the world have pushed back on vaccinations for domestic flights, Foran says a survey of its customers revealed 85 per cent wanted them here.
"We've done it because overwhelmingly our customers, staff and our board has said this is the right thing to do."
Good signs around the Government honouring a promise to bring in a vaccination pass by the end of this month had also been a factor in the airline opting to bring in the new regime. It will run from December 14 to the end of next March at this stage for all passengers over 12.
How it will work
Foran said he was confident the system could be seamless and there won't be long queues at airports.
Information from the under-development My Vaccination Pass will be shared with the Air New Zealand app used by the vast majority of passengers to confirm a passenger is jabbed. That allows the passenger to check-in electronically and board an aircraft by swiping their phone at the gate or printing off a ticket from a kiosk.
"If you don't have a phone and you don't want to download the app it will be a matter of getting that QR code that is on the vaccine pass and you can print that off. You can just hold it under one of our kiosks and this also will allow you to go ahead and get your boarding pass."
So while anyone can book a flight, only those with the proof from the My Vaccination Pass or a negative test can be issued with a boarding pass.
Those not fully vaccinated will be able to provide evidence of a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours before departure – from either free community testing or their GP.
Foran said the testing measure ensured nobody was left behind. The airline had been concerned it provided the only service to some areas and wanted to cater to all customers.
These passengers would need to check-in at a customer service desk and show proof of test in the form of either a text message or a doctor's letter.
"We're not leaving anyone behind. Every single person is going to be able to travel domestically. But if you're not vaccinated, you're going to go and need to get a test."
Foran was confident it would be a "seamless experience" and staff would be fully trained. The airline would assess airports to make sure staff were in a "very safe and sensible" environment.
Foran said he was less concerned about a tiny minority who may object to the tough measures than the vast majority - evidenced by high vaccination rates and feedback - who would thank the airline for making flying safer and cutting the risk of spreading Covid around the country.
"It feels to us, as I think it does feel to the general public, that these are very sensible and the measured approach by Air New Zealand and the way that we've gone about doing them is quite systematic, quite logical and the timing feels right."
He hoped testing could get easier with the approval by health authorities of pre-flight saliva and rapid antigen tests.
"I think what you'll find over the next year, like we have, was many things to do with Covid they just get better and better. We're in discussion with Government officials around that, it's highly unlikely that's going to be in place in the next few weeks and therefore the solution will be community testing which is available in every port that we fly from.''
The union representing most Air NZ workers, E tū, said today's announcement of the new vaccine or test requirements was good news for staff.
All of the airline's staff who interact with passengers are now required to be immunised – either as a result of the Government's vaccination order or the airline's health and safety rules.
"They are all working in a higher risk, public-facing role, so it will be a reassurance to them to know they will working in workplaces where both workers and the vast majority of the travelling public will be vaccinated, wearing masks, and following all of the other rules to keep each other safe," said the union's head of aviation, Savage.
Savage said the union's main focus at this point was to ensure that its members do not suffer any intimidation or harassment by travellers who may blame airline workers for the company's policy.
"Union members will be doing all they can to make sure health and safety is a top priority in their workplace."
Jetstar is operating a limited domestic network here with flights through Auckland suspended. It said it would continue to follow government advice on vaccination and testing and if there were any changes to the current domestic travel requirements, ''it would provide an update to our customers directly.''
As well as severely restricting flights out of Auckland, the Government requires passengers to wear masks on planes but has no vaccine or testing mandates.
Starting up again
Foran said the timing of the new rules was not around any inside knowledge around border plans for Auckland - through which Air NZ does most of its flying below alert level 3 - being open before Christmas. But he's hoping the air travel will resume through the city soon.
"I've got an expectation. And I hope like heck we can - we're planning for that to be the case, but I have no insight on that [timing]."
After cancelling many flights through to the end of the first week in December, more were being put into the system for later in the month with promotional pricing. Domestic flying had bounced back strongly until the August border failure led to the Delta outbreak at a time when the Government's slow vaccination rollout had reached just around 20 per cent of the eligible population.
Only about 40 per cent of Air New Zealand internal flights were operating.
But bookings were building ahead of an anticipated easing of restrictions which limit flying out of Auckland to essential workers or those with Government agency approval to fly.
"We saw an uptick over the last week because people are starting to take a bet that things will loosen up. But they're nothing to what it will be once the announcement is made and you know, we continue to keep ourselves primed and ready to go."
The domestic flights policy may help the airline's international reputation but it hasn't done if for that reason.
"I think overall New Zealand would still be regarded as a very good destination for people to come to they would see New Zealand as being safe. So I think it certainly assists and builds into the New Zealand reputation as being a good place to visit once we move from MIQ."
New Zealand's requirement for managed isolation for almost all international arrivals has effectively stopped most international flying but Foran said there were indications this will end next year.
What's happening around the world
Most airlines in other countries have introduced strict vaccine requirements for staff although few have introduced their own mandates for passengers. But government rules mean many countries that are re-opening require all international passengers to be vaccinated (New Zealand did from the beginning of the month).
Canada has decided to require all air and cruise passengers to be fully vaccinated before traveling which covers domestic trips and in France, domestic air, long-distance train, or bus passengers must have the country's digital health pass, which travelers can get by showing they are fully vaccinated or by showing a negative test taken within 72 hours.
Starting from this week foreign air travellers to the United States will be required to provide proof of vaccination status prior to boarding planes to fly to the United States, with limited exceptions.
All travelers must produce a negative viral test result within three days prior to travel to the United States. Unvaccinated US citizens and others getting exemptions must provide a negative test taken within one day before travelling.
But the world's biggest domestic aviation market doesn't require vaccinations for internal flights. Airlines worry that they could cause further delays and disruption for passengers in the industry which is re-growing quickly.
Willie Walsh, the director general of the International Air Transport Association said last month that it didn't see any reason to mandate vaccination in domestic markets,
He said if vaccination and testing for flights was mandated the same should apply to all forms of transport.