Air New Zealand crew claim they're being 'forced' to work on COVID-19 quarantine flights

Some of Air New Zealand's domestic cabin crew are asking for the same level of COVID-19 protection as their colleagues on international flights.

One staff member has told Newshub the airline is putting "profit before people" and staff are "afraid" as a result.

As part of New Zealand's border protection programme, passengers arriving from overseas must carry out two weeks in managed isolation in a hotel.

Some of those hotels are located in Rotorua, Wellington or Christchurch and to get to them, the returnees fly out of Auckland on flights including specially chartered Air New Zealand turboprop services.

Despite working alongside the same inbound international passengers as their long-haul colleagues, the crew on the turboprop domestic flights aren't protected by the same restrictions or protocols as those who work on flights from overseas.

Air NZ crew returning to Aotearoa have to enter managed isolation, just like the passengers they are transporting, but are allowed to leave if they return a negative test after 48 hours.

However,  crew on the domestic MIQ flights are only required to wear standard facemasks, and aren't isolated or tested for the virus once they finish their shift.

Once the MIQ flight is over, the domestic crew is then stood down for a period of 48 hours. 

Air NZ's Chief Medical Officer Dr Ben Johnston confirmed that while the crew aren't allowed to work in the air for that period, they are free to do what they want.

"The 48 hour stand-down period after MIQ flights was requested by the Ministry of Health," Dr Johnston said.

"Primarily,  that was about separating crew from doing a duty on an MIQ flight, from then doing a duty on a regular domestic flight the next day. So it's about the separation of those kinds of duties."

A crew member who spoke to Newshub anonymously said it made no sense that they were being kept from working and earning an income for 48 hours, but were free to do whatever they want - including going on a plane.

"It's just crazy that flying on an MIQ charter flight means the airline doesn't want you to work on any of their flights for two days, but then you're allowed to go to the mall or the gym, and even fly as a passenger."

The details of the stand-down period were included in an advisory to staff.

"A 48 hour stand-down is required after MIQ flights," the statement said.

"Please note that the stand-down requires that you do not operate any other flights (other than another MIQ flight) for a period of 48 hours, however there is no requirement to self-isolate, and no change to surveillance testing which remains within seven days."

The MIQ flights were originally staffed on a voluntary basis. But due to the health risks and the likelihood of earning less money, many Air NZ staff have declined to work on the special flights.

"These crew members onboard the turboprops, some of them aren't paid as well as they should be. And as soon as something affects their rosters like a 48 hour stand-down, that makes them rethink whether or not they want to do that kind of flight," says E tū's head of aviation, Savage.

Now the option to turn down work on the MIQ flights has been taken away by the airline and all staff are expected to work on them, regardless of the risk.

"It isn't voluntary anymore and we're afraid to do it. We no longer feel comfortable in our workplace," a crew member told Newshub.

"It's the definition of profit before people, it's just toxic, they no longer care about us."

In an email to staff that has been seen by Newshub, Air NZ said the reason the flights would now be rostered like any other flight was because they were running out of volunteers.

"While we have always been supportive of these flights being crewed on a volunteer basis, the challenge we now have with only having a limited amount of crew volunteering, means that potentially some of these crew would lose overnight duties and the associated allowances," the email reads.

"We completely understand and acknowledge that for a number of you this makes a significant financial difference to your lives. 

"Having such a small number of crew to utilise for MIQ flights is now no longer viable for us in terms of being able to run our operation. Unless you are not able to operate due to medical reasons or have vulnerable family members then you would be expected to operate a flight if rostered or asked to do so when on standby."

While Dr Johnston said staff onboard the domestic MIQ flights were exposed to the same passengers as those flying into the country from overseas, they weren't necessarily exposed to the same risks.

"The duration of these flights is very very short, and the level of interaction between crew and passengers is extremely limited.

"The international crew who complete layovers also go through international airports at an offshore location and they go and stay in a hotel under very controlled circumstances, but there is different risk exposure," Johnston said.

However, when asked about the recent change away from voluntary crewing of the MIQ flights, Johnston said he wasn't aware of any changes.

"I'm not aware of the email so I can't comment on it," he said.

E tū's Head of Aviation Savage said he too was caught off-guard by the email as usually the airline would consult with the union first.

"For those working on these smaller planes they have a number of concerns," he said. 

"They don't have the same sophisticated air filtering systems as the bigger jets, they're working in much smaller confines there's only one toilet onboard so they're concerned about mitigating the risk if there was a COVID case onboard."

One of the crew members who spoke to Newshub said they were going to invest in their own PPE for when they get the call-up to staff an MIQ flight.

"We don't have a shower facility to use for after MIQ flights, and we don't have a water tap onboard either. We have a responsibility to protect the community, our loved ones and ourselves," they said.

Air New Zealand says it has never seen a case of passenger-to-crew transmission, and the number of flights and crew the roster changes will affect is small.

"We encourage crew to speak with their manager should they have any apprehensions about operating these flights due to any health or wellbeing concerns," explained Dr Johnston.

Savage says the E tū union will meeting with Air NZ soon.