Air New Zealand has most of its fleet grounded, is starting to lay staff off but has started some flying it hasn't done before.
The airline's chief flight operations and safety officer, David Morgan, says the airline has been contracted by European governments to fly thousands of visitors home and the repatriation flight business is proving a useful fillip for the revenue-starved airline.
Over this past week it has flown five flights to Frankfurt, Germany via Vancouver to get Germans home.
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The German Government contract involves using Boeing 777-300s capable of carrying 342 passengers and three took off from Auckland and two from Christchurch. The five-flight schedule will be repeated next week.
The airline is also about to operate flights on behalf of the Dutch Government, flying its stranded citizens to rendezvous with KLM flights in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. The airline was also due to operate a full Boeing 787-9 from Christchurch to Sydney on behalf of the Dutch Government to meet another flight.
The airline has also operated a repatriation flight to South Korea. The flight to Seoul's Incheon Airport may be repeated and Morgan said other governments were inquiring about the airline's capability to operate repatriation flights.
While Qatar Airways is still operating commercial flights from Auckland to Doha and beyond, special charter flights are the only way to get foreign nationals home.
Lufthansa has flown to Auckland and Christchurch with Boeing 747s and Airbus A380s, as has fellow German airline Condor and Austrian and Swiss International Airlines are carriers not spotted here before that have operated rescue missions.
''The success of the German charter allowed the airline to turn around the Dutch one in two days and there are other governments that have approached the airline,'' said Morgan.
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''A lot of the governments are testing the waters to make sure the airline (Air NZ) can do it and whether people can get to the major ports.''
He said ''cash is king'' and the airline was delighted that the German Government was underwriting Frankfurt charter flights.
"They're on appropriate commercial rates to ensure we're covering our costs.''
So far Air NZ had operated just one rescue flight for Kiwis stranded overseas, the flight to Wuhan on February 4.
However, Morgan said it was on standby to help where it was required.
It investigated whether it could have flown around 50 Kiwis out of Lima, Peru, but South American airline LATAM was better placed to provide the service given its experience in the region.
Morgan said the Wuhan flight was arranged in about four days and flying to new destinations required methodical working through a checklist.
Want to follow us @flightradar24? 👀 ✈️The first 2 flights from New Zealand arriving @Airport_FRA are: LH355, D-ABVP, a #747 from @CHC_Airport, landing APR7, 23:30 LT. Our D-AIMC, an #A380, as LH357 from @AKL_Airport, landing APR8 00:30 LT. Changes can occur. #WeAreInThisTogether pic.twitter.com/3L8QACpfO1— Lufthansa News (@lufthansaNews) April 7, 2020
''What we have to consider are physical aspects of the runway, the apron, is it strong enough to support the weight of the aircraft especially in an ad hoc place if they want us to take a bigger aircraft.''
The airline needed to work with air traffic control, secure air rights if they didn't exist already and arrange ground handling.
Morgan said ground handlers had to be careful not to damage aircraft and there needed to be engineering backup in case of technical problems.
Cargo is also king
With help from the Government's aviation package for exporters, Air NZ has flown 17 freight missions over the past week and 18 were planned in the coming weeks.
The airline's Boeing 787-9s had been operating between two and four ad hoc daily freight flights; including to San Francisco for F&P Healthcare, Shanghai to pick up face masks and carry exports to other markets; Hong Kong, Taipei and Vancouver.
The airline doesn't have dedicated freighters but a 777-300 with no passengers on board could carry 76 tonnes of freight in the cargo area and where luggage was normally stowed. A 787-9 can carry close to 61 tonnes.
Morgan said the airline was investigating whether it would be worthwhile taking out seats in the passenger cabins and attaching pallets to seat tracks.
For ad-hoc flights that come up at short notice pilots on standby are asked if they want to fly them.
The airline is in the process of making up to 387 pilots redundant among about 3500 staff as its operations shrink.
Morgan said for pilots the threat to their future and the virus itself could be a distraction but there were redoubled efforts going in to manage this.
''A lot of effort is going in to supporting them and ensuring operational integrity,'' he said.
The airline has released details of how it is supporting all its 12,500 staff during the outbreak, which included the deployment of its Special Assistance Team.
The team is made up of several hundred volunteers from throughout the airline and plays a vital part of Air New Zealand's response to an emergency event. The team was most recently deployed to offer help following the White Island tragedy in December.
Besides other measures a ''digital wellbeing check-in" tool has also been developed. This sends a notification to all staff asking about their health and wellbeing and giving them the opportunity to request a wellbeing check-in from the airline's wellbeing team or their manager.
It is also in the process of setting up the Āwhina Trust with the support of its union partners for the benefit of employees who are significantly impacted by Covid-19 and who are, or will be, struggling to manage day-to-day finances.
This fund includes money donated by board members and the executive as well as any payroll or leave donations made by senior leadership team members. One-off grants will be made to the value of $750, depending on the need.