A small Queenstown travel firm has successfully organised the repatriation of around 150 passengers including 38 New Zealanders on a return flight from Santiago de Chile.
Returning passengers which entered New Zealand on Tuesday morning were waiting over seven months for an opportunity since borders closed in March.
Having worked with LATAM to return South Americans stuck in New Zealand, X Travel described the return charter as a "game changer".
"It's really difficult to get travellers home from South America," said Victoria Keating of X Travel. "Some countries only opened their borders within the last few weeks."
Passengers paid $3059 a seat for the one-off service from Santiago, which touched down in Auckland yesterday morning before continuing on to Sydney.
Keating says the process was very "last minute", with less than five weeks' notice before take-off. There have been number of steps that made the challenge of flying passengers to Australia and New Zealand a more difficult process. This has included confirming passengers' right to enter New Zealand and getting allocation for seats under both countries' caps on international entries.
"We were incredibly lucky with the NZ government, they have been absolutely a dream to work with," said Keating. "Our counterparts in Australia [DFAT] have been as helpful as they can, but unfortunately their caps are a lot tighter with regard to how many passengers can fly in per day."
Having been granted 30 seats to Australia, this was increased by 23 seats with a week to go.
The turnaround has been tight. However the biggest challenge has been getting travellers to trust a small travel company from New Zealand which they might not have heard of.
"We're just three southern gals in the bottom of the South Island," says Keating. "This whole thing has been a massive leap of faith on their behalf for them to trust us."
Some passengers who have decided to wait out the pandemic have found commercially available routes cancelled until at least next March. Or else, passengers have had to follow circuitous itineraries stretching into days and tens of thousands of dollars. One family on Tuesday's flight paid $16,000 for seats.
xtravel says that this is about fair, considering the plane can only fly at a third capacity. Chartering an aircraft such as a Dreamliner could cost more than $250,000 each way.
"As we start to realise that New Zealand is not going to open its borders any time soon – I think people are going to have to come home via any means necessary," says Keating.
"Every person that's flying has the most heartbreaking story."
This was the first charter service advertised to Kiwi travellers through the New Zealand Santiago Embassy since 15 April, when Viva Expeditions arranged a charter flight for 78 New Zealanders trapped over seas.
The company are in the process of arranging another charter flight with LATAM.
Any passenger arriving to New Zealand after midnight on November 2 will have to show proof of booking into managed isolation before boarding a flight.
The New Zealand Embassy in Santiago says returning travellers can book into the managed isolation system at miq.govt.nz, and that anyone arriving during the period "is strongly encouraged to use the system get their Managed Isolation Allocation Voucher prior to departure."
The service returns to Santiago tonight, carrying passengers from Latin America who have been stranded in Australia and New Zealand since the pandemic began.
Only 579 New Zealanders have managed to return by the Santiago Air route since borders closed on 19 March, according to Stats NZ. Permission for just four charter flights has been granted since April, with 60 per cent of these passengers arriving within a month of borders closing to non NZ residents.
"Our embassies in South America continue to provide consular services and regular updates to New Zealanders registered as being in the region," said a spokesperson for MFAT.
New Zealanders overseas, in need of assistance or advice on returning home should visit safetravel.govt.nz