Coronavirus: Auckland Airport changes could be in place for some time due to unpredictable virus

Changes to Auckland Airport's international terminal in anticipation of travel bubbles could be in place for some time due to the long-term uncertainty around the COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has severely affected international travel, with countries closing their borders and setting up quarantine facilities for arrivals to limit the spread of the virus. 

However, with New Zealand no longer having community transmission, work is underway to set up 'travel bubbles' with other countries that are COVID-free. These air corridors could allow a flow of travel without the need for quarantine.  

In preparation for this, Auckland Airport announced on Monday it would separate its international terminal into two self-contained processing zones. One zone will be for those travelling to and from countries New Zealand has formed a travel bubble with while the second will be for other nations. 

"By reconfiguring our terminal into two separate zones we are creating a safe way for people to travel to and from countries that we have formed a travel bubble with, as well as being able to safely process New Zealanders arriving from other countries," Auckland Airport chief executive Adrian Littlewood said in a statement on Monday. 

Speaking to Newshub, Littlewood said the airport wants the separations in place for whenever the Government gives the green light to certain countries. 

"We want to be ready to go at the time the Government decides to make a decision on whether it is safe to open up travel zones to certain countries. That is very much a decision for them, but we want to make sure our infrastructure is ready to support that decision when it is made," Littlewood said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been ravaging the globe since January and shows no sign of letting up. According to Worldometers, the seven-day rolling average for cases worldwide is 258,000. 

Many countries that previously thought they had successfully fought off the virus are now seeing resurgences. 

On Tuesday, the World Health Organization said while numerous vaccines are being trialled, "there's no silver bullet at the moment and there might never be". If a vaccine is developed, it could still be months or years before it is available for the general public. 

That means changes at the airport may need to be in place for a while to come.

"It is very hard to predict how COVID will unfold globally but I think it is important we recognise this could be with us for some time and therefore we want to make sure we have got a system that can connect both safely to those countries where the health conditions allow it, but equally that we have a part of our terminal to connect with those other countries around the world where health performance is different," Littlewood said. 

"This may be part of our future for the next little while so we want to make sure that we have got our system ready to go to support that."

The "Safe Travel" zone will be at the airport's main pier (gates 1-10). As well as those coming and going to travel bubble countries, this zone can also be used by people who have been in New Zealand for more than 14 days. 

The "Health Management" zone for those coming from countries without a bubble will be at Pier B (gates 15-18) - this will also be used by passengers transiting through Auckland Airport. Food and beverages will be offered here via vending machines. 

Coronavirus: Auckland Airport changes could be in place for some time due to unpredictable virus
Photo credit: Supplied.

Littlewood said changes can be made "relatively easily". 

"We are fortunate in the way our terminal is configured. We have got two separate piers that are quite distantly separated and what we are able to do is put physical controls, doors and other controls in place to keep those physically separate," he said. 

Pier B works on an independent network of utilities, including heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, with a UV filtration system that treats and cleans the air. A separate border processing facility will be created here. 

"While physical distancing isn’t a requirement under alert level 1, we are encouraging customers to allow space between themselves and other people, and for everyone to take extra care with hygiene," Littlewood said. 

Australia was pegged to be the first country New Zealand would open a travel bubble with. However, a recent surge in cases in Victoria - which is now in a state of disaster - means that is now on the backburner. 

A Pacific bubble is now likely to be the first to open, but no timeline has yet been set out for that to occur.

Wellington Airport also said on Monday it was "ready to handle Pacific bubble passengers and would welcome the return of Pacific connections to Wellington". 

"All Pacific passengers can be safely processed in the main terminal buildings, with all passengers fully segregated from domestic travellers using an existing movable wall and additional constructed channel. 

"Our plan also enables us to quickly reinstate additional health checks for departing passengers if required," said Wellington Airport chief executive Steve Sanderson.