Emirates has resumed flights to New Zealand in a "measured and phased" approach to rebuilding its network as airlines around the world get back to work at the fastest rate since Covid-19 slammed the industry.
Four years ago, Emirates was flying five Airbus A380s between New Zealand and Dubai a day. Now it is flying a Boeing 777 to Auckland just three times a week.
The 777-300ER has capacity for up to 434 passengers but is operating with reduced numbers on board as it devotes more space to cargo in and out of the country.
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Emirates regional manager Chris Lethbridge said he expected strong demand for the flights, which provide an important new way of flying between New Zealand and Europe.
"We expect a strong demand on flights from New Zealand given the services to/from the country have been limited for the past few months. The resumption of services will help repatriate customers who were not able to return home due to the closure of borders and flight restrictions."
Emirates was working closely with the New Zealand Government "and following all standard protocols and procedures" over filing flight schedules. The Ministry of Health said in the past week that it was given details of passengers on flights coming to New Zealand at a late stage - after the doors were closed.
The resumption of limited New Zealand services is part of the rebuild from a complete grounding of its fleet in April, to 52 destinations by later this month. The airline is returning some of its 115 grounded A380s to the air on dense routes between Dubai and Europe.
It has been flying here since 2003 and Lethbridge said this country was an important part of its global network.
During the past two months the airline has run dedicated freight flights to and from Auckland, carrying up to 30 tonnes, after winning contracts from the Government as part of its aviation package.
Commodities from New Zealand include food items such as chilled meat, medical appliances, pharmaceuticals and honey to the rest of the world.
Lethbridge said the airline had introduced a "generous" refund policy to ensure customers had a variety of options.
Passengers could either keep their existing tickets for up to two years, exchange the unused portion for a travel voucher equivalent to the amount paid for their original booking, or get a refund if they are unable to travel without any refund penalties.
New health protocols
In Dubai, passengers will have to pass through a fever detection scanner that looks similar to the metal detectors at airport security.
Check-in desks have been fitted with protective antimicrobial screens and spacing stickers on the floor help everyone maintain a safe distance in the queue.
There is staggered boarding, modified waiting areas to ensure all customers can observe social distancing, and all passengers get complimentary hygiene kits containing masks, gloves, hand sanitiser and antibacterial wipes.
On the flight, social areas were closed and the airline said it was following all the guidance from health and aviation authorities, as well as its own additional safety measures to reduce the risk of infection on board.
That includes modified food services, enhanced cleaning and disinfecting, and ensuring everyone wears personal protective equipment.
If the flight is longer than 90 minutes, the airline is adding an extra cabin crew member dedicated to cleaning the lavatories.
What's the opposition doing?
Regional rival Qatar Airways has kept flying throughout the pandemic, although it has cut some routes, including Auckland where it is due to return in October.
On July 1 the airline relaunched 11 more destinations, its largest single day of restarts since the Covid-19 crisis hit.
Its network will expand to more than 430 weekly flights to over 65 destinations, including Bali, Boston, Los Angeles and Washington DC.
Qatar said it provided "an honest network" that never fell below 30 destinations when flying was scaled back in April and May.
It has also resumed flights to Cardiff, where its group chief executive, Akbar Al Baker, told WalesBusinessReview that over the next two years it would review its complete network and he didn't expect business travel to recover soon.
"People are getting used to doing video conferences, working from home, trying to save costs, which will be the new normal for the foreseeable future," he said.
"The only business class travellers will be the people that will travel to visit places and friends, and that will take at least two or three years to get back. So the airline industry and the travel industry is in for a longer recession."
The airline has also changed its booking policies to allow unlimited date changes, and passengers can change their destination as often as they need if it is within 8000km of the original destination.
The global rebuild
Around the world, the first official week of the northern summer has resulted in the strongest week-on-week growth in capacity during the Covid-19 event, with some 8.2 million seats, said route analyst company OAG.
That was a 21 per cent week-on-week increase, but analyst John Grant warned that it may also be a week with a very high rate of cancellations as airlines wait for demand to respond.
"Capacity now stands at 41 per cent of that available in the same week last year, some seven percentage points up on last week: quite a remarkable rate of growth as airlines, travellers and stakeholders around the world scramble to save the summer."
Low-cost carriers in Europe were rapidly restoring capacity as countries in the bloc opened up borders to tourists. And in China - for now the biggest airline market - domestic capacity appears to have bounced back from last week's lockdown in Beijing.
Total capacity increased by nearly a million seats and Chinese domestic capacity this week is at 86 per cent of pre Covid-19 levels, although international capacity remains at less than 10 per cent of normal.
In the United States, capacity this week is up 14.3 per cent on the previous seven days, according to the OAG figures.
One market that shows little chance of a quick recovery is the US$40 billion ($61b) a year transatlantic market. Europe's block on travellers from the US - while admitting other nationals including New Zealanders - has what Grant says are immense implications for airlines.
"On an average day some US$46 million of revenues are generated across the 'pond' and for at least one airline it is literally their billion-dollar earner and their most profitable market," he said.
"It is obviously great news that Europe is reopening and that travel restrictions are being lifted with countries outside of the European Union, however, whilst travel from China, Australia, South Korea and Japan represents a breakthrough moment, the lack of free movement to the United States remains a major problem for all airlines operating in that market.''
What's happening in this region?
Air New Zealand this week added more capacity to its domestic schedule ahead of the school holidays, with the 302-seat Dreamliner to operate between Auckland and Christchurch during this time.
It will operate 16 return passenger services between Auckland and Christchurch until July 19, adding almost 10,000 extra seats on this route.
On the Auckland-Queenstown route there will be more capacity over the holidays than during the same time last year, through upgrading 140 return services from A320s to its larger A321neo aircraft until July 26.
The airline faces competition for the first time in months, with the return of Jetstar. The Qantas subsidiary is "initially" flying 75 return flights per week to five destinations in New Zealand: Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, Dunedin and Queenstown, returning to about 60 per cent of its normal domestic schedule.
This has already prompted Air New Zealand to drop its prices, with chief commercial and customer officer Cam Wallace saying in a tweet that about 3500 passengers flew for less than $100 per sector on Tuesday.
Relatively busy day on the @FlyAirNZ domestic network today, 230 flights. The equivalent of over 70+ Q300 flights of passengers paying less than $100 per sector. Clunky way of saying we have price stimulation & competition back in the market!— Cam Wallace (@CamWallace_NZ) July 1, 2020
Across the Tasman, Virgin Australia today announced it would restart flights to another 11 domestic destinations and add a further 17 routes to its domestic network by early August, bringing the total number of domestic destinations available to 28.
The airline was bought by US private equity firm Bain Capital after falling into voluntary administration in April.
It is expected to concentrate on rebuilding its domestic network - where it had a 37 per cent market share pre-Covid - before working to restart its transtasman and Pacific network
Asked what the plans were for the Tasman, a spokesman said: "Management will be working this week with Bain to discuss the parts of the business moving forward and we'll provide details when decisions have been made."