Quarantine-free travel between Australia and New Zealand is providing an insight into how air travel will evolve during the next five years.
Analysts at one firm say this is how long it may take to fully recover to 2019 levels and, given the previous rate of growth has been lost, it may never recover the flight path it would have been on if Covid-19 didn't happen.
Come the 2026 financial year, international travel to and from New Zealand may be 22 per cent lower than the historic growth trend, according to Forsyth Barr.
Domestic travel has rebounded strongly in New Zealand but with fewer overseas visitors to fill planes flying around the country, the number of passengers may be 18 per cent lower than if the pandemic had not struck.
The two-way bubble with Australia has been in place more than three weeks and offers a glimpse of the future for a post-pandemic world.
It's been lumpy. It operates on a traffic light system that has already been flicked to amber twice in the past three weeks after Covid-19 community cases were detected in Perth and Sydney. Under this cautious approach, especially on this side of the Tasman, air travel can be suspended for up to 72 hours.
Travellers are well-advised to get used to the disruption but, depending on the pace of vaccination and increasingly nuanced approach from health authorities, pauses may be less likely in the future.
Australia has permitted Kiwis to enter, quarantine-free, since last October and, apart from one pause in January, travel westward has gone smoothly.
The Cook Islands is next for two-way quarantine-free travel. Direct entry from the Covid-free islands resumed more than three months ago, again with no problems reported, although authorities will be super-vigilant and willing to press pause if the health of the Cooks is any way at risk.
The New Zealand Government should now look at how a traffic light system could apply to the rest of the world. High-risk countries can be easily identified and face a red light; those with pandemic under control or on the elimination path can be classified orange and green.
This, combined with new airport and aircraft health measures, universally accepted vaccination passports, rapid testing and more powerful contact tracking and tracing, should give further assurance to the Government on how to reconnect New Zealand to the wider world, which is opening up quickly in places.
As aviation recovers it will look different. More than 40 airlines have collapsed or gone into administration during the past 13 months and many others have been kept on life support by governments.
Just on 30 airlines flew to New Zealand before the pandemic, several of these won't return, not good news for consumers who enjoyed what was dubbed the "Golden Age of Travel" in the near-decade of rapid growth and cheap fares leading up to 2020.
But the lack of competition should be good for the re-capitalised, restructured and revitalised incumbents. A leaner Air New Zealand could well thrive post-Covid.
Some routes won't resume, others, such as Air NZ's Auckland-Hobart service and Qantas' non-stop Queensland flights will test the waters. Flexibility will be the key.
One area that will struggle is the business market. A McKinsey & Company report estimates corporate travel — the big money-spinner for airlines — will be just 80 per cent of 2019 levels in 2024.
Leisure travel will fuel the recovery. But the report predicts that with fewer planes, less revenue from the business class cabin and the need to repay debt of $250b amassed last year, airfares may rise about 3 per cent.
Airlines will have to reboot sustainability programmes to earn what could be a more hard-earned social licence, especially if freshly empowered state stakeholders have green policies at the heart of their agenda.
The fast-paced Covid collapse of commercial aviation was awful to watch last year, the path to recovery will be fascinating. Fasten your seatbelts.