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Covid-free airport roars ahead – and why you can’t visit it

August 3, 2020 Headline News No Comments Email Email

A striking photo of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Adern hugging a colleague graphically illustrates the country’s Covid-free status – borne out by remarkable new figures showing that Auckland Airport overtook Sydney Airport and Singapore Changi in June, in terms of passenger numbers, to breathe down the neck of London Heathrow.

The photo of Jacinda published at the weekend shows her embracing her predecessor, former New Zealand Labour Party leader Andrew Little, on the third anniversary of her taking over the party leadership. A public hug is a rare sight in most countries, in this era of masks and distancing!

New Zealand is now free of the dreaded Covid-19 coronavirus, though the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

With the global aviation market crippled by Covid-19, Auckland Airport was one of the busiest in Australasia for the month of June. The number of domestic flights operating from the airport has made New Zealand’s biggest aviation hub one of the busiest in the region.

There’s a compelling reason why Australians can’t fly to Auckland yet, nor to pretty much anywhere else – and it has more to do with an unusual Australian law than being simply a matter of Covid-19.

With a few exceptions, Australians are not allowed to leave the country. Most countries (including Australia and New Zealand) impose a 14-day quarantine on people entering. But Australia is one of the very few to prevent its citizens and permanent residents leaving.

IATA publishes and updates a handy map showing where travellers can go in the world, and what the quarantine regulations are on arrival in each country.

That is little use, however, if you can’t leave Australia.

A ponderously titled Australian law bans any Australian citizen departing unless they have a special exemption, which is granted for a few cases. It’s called the Biosecurity (Human Biosecurity Emergency) (Human Coronavirus with Pandemic Potential) (Overseas Travel Ban Emergency Requirements) Determination 2020.



Twilight concert at The Soundshell, Wellington Botanic Garden.
With Covid-19 eliminated, New Zealanders are free to congregate when concerts resume in summer. Photo: Peter Needham


The law forbids any Australian citizen or permanent resident to leave Australian territory as a passenger on an outgoing aircraft or vessel unless they have a special exemption.

Exemptions apply to:

(a)  a person ordinarily resident in a country other than Australia;

(b)  a person who is member of the crew of an aircraft or vessel (other than the outgoing aircraft or vessel) or is a worker associated with the safety or maintenance of an aircraft or vessel (other than the outgoing aircraft or vessel);

(c)  a person engaged in the day-to-day conduct of inbound and outbound freight;

(d)  a person whose travel is associated with essential work at an offshore facility;

(e)  a person who is travelling on official government business (including a member of the Australian Defence Force).

Anyone else must prove exceptional circumstances “providing a compelling reason for needing to leave Australian territory”.

Some suggest this restriction turns Australia into an island version of Hotel California, as immortalised by the Eagles: “You can check out any time you like but you can never leave”.

New Zealanders are free to leave their country. EU citizens can leave their countries. So can Britons, Americans, Canadians and citizens of most other countries.

Australia’s prohibition on leaving makes any creation of international “travel bubbles” impossible. It’s easy to see why people need to quarantine for health reasons on return to Australia (at their own expense; $3000 in most cases) but how is Australia’s health compromised by people leaving?

Domestic tourism is roaring ahead in New Zealand. It’s doing quite well in Australia, though Australia’s constantly changing internal border restrictions, sparked by a Covid-19 surge in Victoria, have put on the brakes.

New Zealand has no such problems. In June 2020, Auckland Airport had 231,600 fliers travel through its international and domestic terminals. While passenger numbers were down 85% overall compared to the same month last year – the strength of the domestic market meant Auckland Airport was busier than some of the largest airports in Australia and Asia.

Auckland Airport’s general manager aeronautical commercial, Scott Tasker, said well over 100 domestic flights had operated each day from Auckland Airport in June.

“Kiwis are picking up on Tourism New Zealand’s message and getting out to see their own country. We saw traveller numbers increase again over the July school-holiday period, putting domestic passenger demand at about 60% of what it was during the same time last year. While we’re on the right track and it’s encouraging to see people returning to travel, we still have a long way to go.”

In June, Brisbane Airport had 184,616 passengers, 20% lower than Auckland Airport, while Sydney had 172,000 passengers, 25% lower than Auckland. Changi, in Singapore, had 48,200 passengers (79% lower than Auckland) and Hong Kong had 59,000 (74% lower than Auckland).

Auckland’s June numbers were just 28% behind the UK’s largest hub, London Heathrow, where there were 320,283 passengers for the month of June. London Heathrow was Europe’s biggest airport in 2019 in terms of total passenger movements, a position it has occupied for many years.

Tasker said the numbers demonstrated the stark reality of the challenges faced by airlines and airports around the world.

“Everyone in the aviation and tourism industry has been significantly affected by Covid-19. While we’re facing challenges in the short term, we know that New Zealand is a very desirable destination for travellers and airlines will continue to want to fly here in future.”

Of Auckland’s 231,600 passengers in June, 206,321 or 89% were flying domestically. Christchurch was the most popular destination with 10 flights daily, followed by Great Barrier Island with seven flights per day. Wellington had around six flights a day in June while Queenstown had three flights per day.

“Kiwis are fortunate to be able to fly domestically with so few restrictions and they’re taking advantage of that,” Tasker said. “Businesses and communities from Christchurch to Great Barrier Island rely on airlinks to stay connected, so it’s been great to see the recovery of domestic travel.”

Chief executive of Barrier Air, Nick Pearson, said Auckland Airport’s support of the company’s air services to the Aotea Great Barrier Island community during the pandemic had been crucial.

“Auckland Airport’s support has enabled us to keep operating flights ensuring the provision of medical supplies and personnel, food and household grocery supplies, business freight and essential passenger travel in support of the Great Barrier Island community.”

Auckland Airport is connected to 22 airports across New Zealand.

Auckland Airport’s June in numbers:

  • About 745 international passengers arrived and departed from Auckland Airport daily, about 3% of last June’s volume.
  • Of the total number of international passengers in June (22,371) around 9,000 were arrivals – Kiwis coming home.
  • About half of these passengers came from across the Tasman.
  • India was the second largest source of arrivals with 1500 passengers coming in on dedicated Air India repatriation flights which operated in June.
  • Arrivals from the US and China were next with about 1000 each.
  • Eight airlines operated international passenger flights into Auckland in June.
  • On average three international flights arrived per day, compared with around 70 international flights per day in June 2019.
  • In June 2019, 1,535,504 passengers came through Auckland Airport.

Written by Peter Needham

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