There were joyful scenes at Bay of Islands Airport yesterday as family members who hadn't seen each other in months were reunited and people stranded in Northland since Auckland went into lockdown finally got to go home.
After a short delay caused by strong winds, Air New Zealand flight NZ8480 from Wellington touched down in Kerikeri at 12.30pm, the first flight of a temporary service bypassing Auckland.
So far, direct Kerikeri-Wellington flights are scheduled only until September 21 but may be extended if Auckland's travel restrictions drag on.
High demand has already prompted the airline to bump up the number of flights to two a day, starting tomorrow.
While essential workers and people engaged in ''permitted travel'' are allowed to drive through Auckland or transit via the city's airport, that doesn't apply to people who want to visit family or go on holiday.
Among those on the first flight was Wellington resident Pikihuia Reihana, who hadn't seen her whanau in ''months and months''.
Waiting to hug her at the gate was her sister Ripeka Reihana, of Maromaku, and moko Toka Tait, 3.
Pikihuia Reihana said the last time she saw her moko he could barely string a sentence together. Now he was babbling non-stop.
''It's fantastic to be back. We've had numerous sessions on Facetime, Zoom and Facebook — thanks goodness for technology — but it's not the same.''
Another happy reunion was between Kerikeri's Tony Ashton-Peach and his son Sean, a technician at Te Papa in Wellington.
''I'm so glad Air New Zealand has been able to think of a way of connecting us. It's taken a lot of the stress and worry away,'' Tony Ashton-Peach said.
"It'll be very nice to have him home," he said.
Sean Ashton-Peach said he hadn't been back to his childhood home in a year and a half, so when the opportunity arose he jumped at it.
"I thought, 'Let's take advantage of it while we can. Who knows what will happen in the future.'"
The flight in the 50-seat Bombardier Q300 took an hour and 40 minutes. It was fully booked, as was the return trip.
Waiting to board the return flight to Wellington were John and Helen Owens, former owners of Kaeo Farm and Fuel who are now living in Twizel.
The couple travelled to Northland to look after a farm while the caretaker was away, but what was supposed to be a 10-day stint turned into 27 days.
"We came up here and, lo and behold, the lockdown happened. We've been here the whole time," John Owens said.
Helen Owens was anxious to see her elderly mother, so for the past few weeks they'd been glued to their computer canvassing options for getting home.
She would "absolutely" like to see the Kerikeri-Wellington link become permanent.
"I'm really pleased to be jumping over Auckland. On our way home we'll be staying with friends. They'd be worried if we came via Auckland."
Also waiting to go home was Palmerston North resident Eva Park, who came back to her whenua in Kaikohe for healing five months ago.
A number of flights she'd booked via Auckland had been cancelled so she was grateful to get a seat on the first plane to Wellington.
"I was so lucky. I prayed heaps. I'm so grateful to be going home. I've got a granddaughter who's nine months old. Seeing her on the phone isn't enough."
The flights also aim to bring domestic tourists north.
Paihia Business Association chairman Charles Parker hoped the Kerikeri-Wellington service would be well supported and the number of flights would be further increased.
''We can't get holidaymakers from Auckland by road so the ones that arrive by air are the only ones. We need a lot of them,'' he said.
Air New Zealand's chief sales officer Leanne Geraghty said the service had been well received. High demand for the first nine flights had prompted the airline to add six more from tomorrow until Tuesday.
The service is scheduled only until September 21 but that may be extended depending on how long Auckland stays at level 4 and 3.
Flights from Whangārei to Auckland resumed on September 8, allowing essential workers and people engaged in permitted travel to transit through Auckland.
The list of reasons for permitted travel is long — it includes funerals/hui mate, education, caring for someone who is terminally ill, and essential work or business — but it does not include family visits or going on holiday.
Earlier, Air New Zealand said there were no plans to start direct Whangārei-Wellington flights because with the Whangārei-Auckland service already operating it made sense to offer the Kerikeri-Wellington route to provide a travel option for the Far North.
However, the Advocate understands there are also operational reasons why aircraft can't fly from Whangārei to Wellington at short notice.
Air New Zealand currently refuels its Whangārei-bound aircraft in Auckland.
Refuelling the airline's Q300s at Whangārei, which would be necessary for Wellington flights, would require an extra piece of equipment not currently installed at the Onerahi airport.
Kerikeri's airport does have an adapter for refuelling larger aircraft because of its greater distance from Auckland.
In the past, direct flights from Whangārei to Wellington used the smaller Beech 1900 aircraft ,which don't need a special adapter.
Another service which allows travellers to bypass Auckland is Sunair's direct Whangārei-Tauranga route.
Barrier Air operates regular flights from Kaitaia but they land in Auckland, so the rules around permitted travel apply.
■ Go to covid19.govt.nz for the full list of reasons for permitted travel. You can also check out the latest information about travelling from Northland at covid19.govt.nz/alert-levels-and-updates/regional-advice/northland.