Air New Zealand agrees with Jacinda Ardern that separating transit passengers complicates travel bubbles

Separating transiting passengers is a complication Jacinda Ardern has raised when asked why travel bubbles are taking so long to establish - and Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran agrees. 

"We're going to have to sort out how we transit passengers," Foran told a committee of MPs on Thursday, when asked about the likelihood of a travel bubble with Australia or the Cook Islands. 

"If you've got a country that's effectively COVID-free with another country that's COVID-free, you've got to sort out how you're going to handle the intermingling, or ideally not the intermingling, of passengers that are transiting through," he said. 

Foran provided an example of a plane that arrives in New Zealand from the United States with about 100 people on board. He said about two-thirds might get off in Auckland and go into managed isolation, while a third might go to Brisbane.

Once the flight arrives in Brisbane, there might be 60 people on the flight who split ways - 30 may stay in Australia and 30 may transit through Brisbane to Doha or some other destination.

"That's something that as a team we're all going to have to wrestle to the ground, in particular that it's going to be important for Australia," Foran added. 

The Prime Minister issued similar caution earlier this month. 

"At the moment, our airports don't separate individuals who we might be certain are COVID-19 free from those who are not", she told The AM Show. "We would need very strong physical barriers, different staff interacting with different groups. There are a number of practical things that need to be in place." 

ACT leader David Seymour blasted Ardern's response at the time. 

Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran.
Air New Zealand CEO Greg Foran. Photo credit: Getty

He said being able to separate travellers coming from different parts of the world is "among the most straightforward tasks" and he described our borders as the "world's dumbest". 

"The next government is going to have to get smart. Living resiliently in a post-COVID world will require a lot more sophistication than simply saying 'it's too hard, we can't even separate passengers getting off one plane from passengers on another'."

Foran said Air New Zealand is working with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to progress a travel bubble with the Cook Islands, but he said it's not that simple.  

"It is a hard thing to predict for any of us. This literally becomes a week by week, at best month by month review, to see where we are at, [and] where their county is at, in terms of opening up.".

The Prime Minister has been holding talks with Cook Islands Prime Minister Henry Puna, and Health Minister Chris Hipkins says the Cook Islands and other New Zealand realms are "obviously a priority" for a travel bubble. 

Foran said he understands why the Government is being cautious. 

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is concerned about travel bubbles because of intermingling passengers at airports.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is concerned about travel bubbles because of intermingling passengers at airports. Photo credit: Getty

With Australia experiencing a resurgence of COVID-19, he said the chance of a trans-Tasman bubble could be implemented by "at best the end of this year and more likely next year". 

He said Australia "still feels a little bit cloudy and beyond that is a bit difficult to predict."

Foran said Air New Zealand is dealing with "unprecedented" circumstances thanks to COVID-19 drying up airline revenue. He said the carrier, which is 53 percent Government-owned, is grateful for domestic passengers. 

"We are fortunate to have a strong domestic business... We have been pleasantly surprised with what we have seen." 

He said Air New Zealand was a $60 billion business at the start of the year, and when alert level 4 was introduced, it was suddenly operating at 1 percent. 

"That $60 billion became a $60 million business."

The airline was inundated with flight cancellation calls, and Foran apologised to all of the customers who have had to wait for hours or give up. 

"Our inability to handle the sheer volume of that has caused a lot of people concern."

He said normally Air New Zealand would get 5000 calls a day to its call centres - but it peaked at 75,000 calls a day, and ever since the airline has been trying to catch up. 

He said about 20,000 compassionate refunds have been issued.