COVID-19: Auckland Airport's outgoing CEO Adrian Littlewood declares New Zealand needs to open up now

In his last week in Auckland Airport's top job, Adrian Littlewood told The AM Show there is no longer any logic in forcing fully vaccinated New Zealanders with pre-departure testing into quarantine facilities as the science doesn't support it.

He called on the Government to decide on the matter now, giving the aviation industry time to prepare amid the recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The Government has stated that vaccinations are our ticket to an unrestricted summer holiday, yet fully vaccinated and tested Kiwis remain stuck offshore, kept apart from family and friends over Christmas," Littlewood said.

"Some of our most prominent scientific experts have come out and said this week that the risk they present is low and better use could be made of our scarce MIQ facilities. And we've also seen Air New Zealand announce new domestic safety protections this week, meaning only fully vaccinated or COVID-19-negative people will be able to fly from mid-December.

"The time has come for the grief and inequity caused by these restrictions to end, allowing Kiwis to return, reunite with their families and isolate at home if they are fully vaccinated with pre-departure testing. The Government needs to make this a priority now."

Earlier this week, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was asked why the MIQ system hasn't been scrapped amid the COVID-19 Delta outbreak.

"At the moment, we're just making sure we do that carefully and safely because, as you hear from the people that help us with our modelling, if you switch off your border protections quickly you do seed extra cases," Ardern told The AM Show.

"We all know that the thousands of cases we have from this outbreak at the moment started from one, so we can't be dismissive about one case being seeded in the community as not having an impact - it does.

"All of the modelling that you look at - the difference between large hospitalisations and smaller - one of the factors is what you do at the border so if you just flip that switch too quickly it just layers up risk."

Littlewood said Aotearoa was lagging behind the rest of the developed world with ongoing restrictions for inbound Kiwi travellers.

"Citizens in countries like Australia, Canada, the United States and the United Kingdom are now travelling more freely yet our country remains shut off with no certainty. Australians are going to be able to return home for Christmas in most states with either no isolation or home isolation. Why can't New Zealanders do the same?" Littlewood asked.

Flight stats:

  • Pre-COVID-19, 29 international carriers operated passenger services at Auckland Airport, with 12 currently remaining
  • In September 2019, 267,804 Kiwis returned to New Zealand (pre-COVID)
  • In September 2020, 7263 Kiwis returned to New Zealand
  • In September 2021, 3857 Kiwi's returned to New Zealand, that's 99 percent down on September 2019 levels

He also said the Government needed to be a lot clearer on exactly when the border is going to reopen, regardless of the uncertainty over when is safe to do so amid the pandemic.

"We understand the Government does plan to relax the border restrictions in the new year. They need to provide clarity and say so officially now. If the Government can't make this commitment now as New Zealand approaches 90 percent fully vaccinated then when will this be possible?" asked Littlewood. 

"You can't just flick a switch and turn back on an international air network. Our airline contacts have told us that recommissioning a plane and preparing its supporting crew from hibernation could take three months. Airlines lock in their flight schedules a long way in advance and planning for late 2022 and early 2023 is happening now right across the industry.

"Major foreign airlines have told us they need more certainty in order to confirm the timing of their return to New Zealand."

Earlier this week, a similar warning came from Flight Centre NZ's general manager David Coombes, who said New Zealand could be left off international airline's 2022 flight networks if we waited too long to reopen or give a date as to when we will reopen.

"Other countries are opening up and there's only a limited amount of air capacity. If we want to be left without the opportunity to have airlines flying into New Zealand - that's bad for business, that's bad for Kiwi travellers," Coombes said.

Littlewood agrees, saying this could have significant implications for New Zealand as a trading nation and the high-value imports and exports our economy relies on.

"Our vaccination rates are high and they will continue to climb. We are urging the Government to make a commitment now to when the border will open up to fully vaccinated travellers with pre-departure testing."