While confusion grows over plans to allow Auckland motorists past the Mercer and Mangawhai border posts over Christmas, across the Tasman Qantas is already adding flights to its newly resumed long haul international network to meet strong demand.
The New Zealand Government has been quiet since August on wide scale international re-opening plans, but Australia's most populous states have dropped all quarantine requirements for many arrivals after hitting vaccination targets. Air New Zealand took delivery of a new aircraft today and says resumption of international flights is growing closer.
Qantas resumed scheduled passenger flights between Sydney and London and Sydney and Los Angeles on Monday, leading to emotional scenes at airports as friends and families were reunited, sometimes after years of being apart.
The dropping of quarantine for fully vaccinated travellers has already opened up New South Wales for the first time since March last year.
Qantas says "extremely" strong bookings on its flights between Sydney and London had led to 10 additional return services being added to this route for this month. Demand was particularly strong from Australians coming home in time for Christmas.
However, the restart of most flights from Melbourne and Sydney across the Tasman has been pushed back from mid-December to January 3 next year.
The airline says that followed the New Zealand Government's confirmation that hotel quarantine and limits on the number of arrivals will continue for people travelling from Australia.
"These dates could be pushed later should these restrictions remain. Qantas and Jetstar are ready to ramp up flights when people can travel freely between Australia and New Zealand again," says Qantas.
Air New Zealand will operate a very limited schedule between Sydney and Auckland from December 6 (two return flights per week), which will largely be one-way traffic from New Zealand and will also carry freight.
The airline is adding more flights into Australia in the lead-up to Christmas, but returning "red" services require passengers to go through MIQ, so numbers are constrained by the number of spots available.
Air NZ is poised to resume more passenger services throughout its long haul network when quarantine requirements are relaxed here, having maintained a presence in key markets with freight and limited passenger flights throughout the pandemic. The airline has also welcomed the first new Airbus A320 into its fleet since 2019. It is the first of two and, says chief pilot David Morgan, a welcome sign that international travel is just over the horizon.
Flight Centre NZ is also growing in confidence about the resumption of travel and next week is hosting a virtual Travel Runway event to showcase new experiences overseas.
The event coincides with the government's gradual moves to loosen restrictions at the border, including reduced MIQ stays, quarantine-free travel from low-risk South Pacific regions, and a move to self-isolation, likely in the first quarter of next year, the travel firm says.
That, coupled with increasing vaccination rates, has Flight Centre optimistic about a coming travel boom.
"Travel is a rite of passage in New Zealand and we know Kiwis will be keen to explore the world once it is safe to do so," said Flight Centre Travel Group managing director David Coombes.
A recent Flight Centre survey of about 160,000 customers showed 88 per cent of respondents saw themselves as travelling overseas in the next year.
Coombes said it was a matter of when, not if, travel resumed.
In August Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said the country would from the first quarter of 2022 move to new individual risk-based border settings that would establish low-, medium- and high-risk pathways into the country. The Government has gone ahead with a self-isolation pilot programme and opened up to more inbound travel from Pacific countries.
Tourism groups warn that without firm commitments and dates to re-open more widely, the deep slump in the international visitor industry may become terminal.
Across the Tasman, more than 80 per cent of people 16 and older in New South Wales, Victoria and Canberra are fully vaccinated - a condition for the resumption of quarantine-free international travel so far by Australians, New Zealanders and Singaporeans.
In New Zealand, more than 76 per cent of the eligible population is now fully vaccinated, although here the government has the higher target of 90 per cent before easing many internal restrictions.
Board of Airline Representatives executive director Justin Tighe Umbers said it was great to see full aircraft flying into Sydney, but it didn't sit well with him to see the Aussies beating NZ.
"We are falling well behind Australia. It's not even clear when planes can be full flying out of Auckland again, let alone internationally. We need to set a clear target of when New Zealand will allow quarantine-free entry against our 90 per cent vaccination target," he said.
"There is no justifiable reason to wait, with a vaccinated population the risk of overwhelming hospitals is massively reduced. The rest of the world knows this, they are opening up, we need to be kind to New Zealanders and do the same."
Singapore Airlines has resumed passenger services to Australia and from December 13 Hawaiian Airlines will resume a five-times-a-week Sydney-Honolulu service.
Flight schedule experts OAG say the northern winter season has started strongly with markets reopening and new air services being launched in many markets. But total scheduled airline capacity remains at 27 per cent below 2019 levels. Only two regions remain at less than half of their normal capacity levels - southeast Asia (-72 per cent) and the southwest Pacific (-67 per cent).
Thailand has reopened to 60 countries, and with other easing of restrictions in the coming months OAG expects weekly capacity increases to flow through shortly.