Air New Zealand’s first quarantine-free flight in months lands to emotional welcome

The first quarantine-free flight in 10 months has landed in Auckland with friends and family ready to greet passengers from the Cook Islands with an emotional welcome.

The Air New Zealand flight landed at Auckland Airport shortly after 11am with a small gathering of family and friends waiting in the arrivals area.

Rimu Iaone was excited about meeting his grandaughter Nana – their first reunion in over a year.

“We jumped for joy when we heard about the fight.We thought it was going to be March but they brought it forward,” Iaone told the Herald.

Nana, 16, will spend two weeks in New Zealand before returning to the Cook Islands to go to school.

“She’s excited about meeting her papa -she’s excited about getting to McDonalds too.”

April last year was the last time passengers were able to walk straight through the airport to loved ones rather than on to buses and into managed isolation hotels or quarantine facilities.

So far more than 100,000 returning New Zealanders have passed through the facilities and today’s flight is a small but significant step in normalising travel between New Zealand and, in the first instance, the Pacific Islands.

Air New Zealand flight NZ941 departed the Cook Islands at7:45 am local time.

The airline’s chief executive Greg Foran said he was pleased with how bookings have been tracking and what this flight means for more travel between New Zealand and neighbouring nations.

“We have been encouraged by an increase in bookings following the announcement, especially for January and February,” he said.

”We knew there was pent up demand from Cook Islanders waiting to come to New Zealand without quarantining. We’re thrilled to bring the first wave of Cook Islanders who meet the quarantine-free requirements into New Zealand. We see this as a really positive step towards a two-way airbridge with Rarotonga.”

The health checks for quarantine-free travel from Rarotonga to New Zealand will occur both at the airport in Rarotonga and in Auckland Airport on arrival.

Passengers from the flight will use a streamlined Safe Travel Path, which separates them from passengers arriving from other parts of the world.

“Air travel is important for trade, business or just heading off on an exciting adventure – and also for connecting friends and whanau for life’s precious moments is what really makes it special,” said Auckland Airport’s manager of aeronautical commercial Scott Tasker.

While Auckland Airport has prepared to separate its international terminal into two self-contained zones – a health management zone for arrivals needing to go into managed isolation and quarantine, and a safe travel zone for arrivals from countries with which New Zealand has formed two-way, safe travel bubbles – these separated zones won’t operate for the Cook Islands arrivals.

”The expectation of only two flights per week under the one-way, quarantine-free arrangement with the Cook Islands made a Safe Travel Path a practical interim step, following discussions with border agencies and government officials,” said Tasker.

Air New Zealand will operate flights from Rarotonga on Wednesdays and Saturdays using an A321 aircraft.

Tasker said allowing quarantine-free flights from a Covid-free country like the Cook Islands is a small, but important, first step in the recovery of the aviation and tourism sector.

“Taking a careful and staged, risk-based approach to re-opening the New Zealand border will be crucial in re-establishing regular, reliable air links with the Pacific Islands and beyond,” Tasker said.

International passenger movements have been devastated by the pandemic.

”We are a long way from the 15,000 people that would have walked through our international arrivals doors daily this time last year, but what we’ve seen with domestic air travel is that people are keen to fly again when lockdown restrictions are lifted. We now have domestic travel volumes at around 60 per cent of what they were pre-Covid.”

Before the pandemic about 1.4 million people travelled to and from the Pacific Islands through Auckland Airport each year on eight different airlines.

Tasker said it would ”take some time” to get those air connections re-established.

Before returning to the Cook Islands passengers will need to undertake a Covid-19 test within 96 hours of their flight departing. The result must be negative. Travellers alsomust complete the exit health clearance process at Auckland Airport.

New Zealanders can’t yet travel to the Cook Islands for holidays.Entry is limited to Cook Islanders and current holders of Cook Islands work and residence permits who meet that country’s health entry requirements.

Work is underway on establishing a two-way travel bubble with Australia which could start as early as the end of March. New Zealanders can travel quarantine-free to New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory, the Northern Territory, Queensland and Victoria but coming in to this country they must complete 14 days in managed isolation or quarantine.

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