NZ travel bubble flights ‘selling like hot cakes’
Qantas, Jetstar and Air New Zealand are seeing huge demand for trans-Tasman flights ahead of the two-way travel bubble starting on April 19, making Virgin Australia's decision to postpone services all the more curious.
More than 230 flights a week were added to the schedules of Qantas, Jetstar and Air New Zealand on Tuesday, between most of Australia's major cities and Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington and Queenstown.
Qantas Loyalty CEO Olivia Wirth said frequent flyers took the opportunity to redeem thousands of points built up over the pandemic, with the rate of redemptions 80-times that of a normal day.
"That gives you an idea of how excited people are and we do expect that people have been really looking forward to reconnecting with family and friends," Ms Wirth said.
A Qantas Group spokeswoman said seats had been selling "like hot cakes" since the New Zealand Prime Minister's announcement in a sign of the pent up demand for travel.
However Virgin Australia passengers were left trying to rebook flights or obtain refunds, after the airline announced it would push back trans-Tasman services from June 19 to October 31.
The only exceptions were some Queenstown flights which would operate from September 18.
A Virgin Australia statement said evolving border requirements adding to the complexity of the business were behind the decision, along with fleet restrictions as the carrier made domestic flying its focus.
In the wake of the airline's administration in 2020, and sale to US private equity firm Bain Capital, Virgin had reduced its fleet from more than 100 aircraft to under 60 Boeing 737s.
Former Air New Zealand executive Cam Wallace took to social media to remark on the "very strange" move by Virgin, pointing out they "would miss out on the massive pent up demand especially out of Brisbane for school holidays and the ski season".
Along with Qantas, Virgin Australia recently received millions in dollars of assistance from the federal government to maintain its international aviation capability.
A spokesman for the Department of Infrastructure, Transport Regional Development and Communications said Virgin's decision to delay flights to New Zealand would not affect the funding.
"The International Aviation Support Measure is related to maintaining an international workforce and operational capability over the period to October 31, 2021," said the spokesman.
Air New Zealand chief executive Greg Foran said they were pre-loading 24,000 bottles of champagne for the first travel bubble flights, to celebrate the border reopening.
"I'll certainly be digging out my passport for the first time since I joined the airline to head across the ditch to see my family and I'm especially looking forward to meeting some of my grandchildren for the first time," said Mr Foran.
As well as the run on flight bookings, travel website Wotif reported surging interest in accommodation throughout New Zealand.
Wotif managing director Daniel Finch said while many Australians were no doubt looking to reunite with family and friends, it was clear others were seeking a winter break across the ditch, with destinations like Queenstown and Wanaka trending on the site.
"At this stage we're seeing the best value is available in the cities with 10 to 40 per cent off select accommodation in Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington, however there are some great deals available right across New Zealand," Mr Finch said.
Qantas and Jetstar will initially fly 122 services a week on 15-routes, carrying a potential 52,000 passengers.
The Qantas Group will also launch two new routes from Auckland to Cairns and the Gold Coast, in a sign of confidence in the travel bubble.
Qantas Domestic and International CEO, Andrew David, said in the past 12-months New Zealand had "never felt further away" but that was about to change.
"Restarting flights to New Zealand is about more than starting to rebuild our international network, it's about reconnecting families and friends and getting more of our people back flying again," Mr David said.
"Hopefully, stories of missed weddings and birthdays on either side of the ditch will now be a thing of the past.
"We know Australians are keen to head overseas again, so we expect strong demand for flights to New Zealand and there are many Kiwis who can't wait for a winter escape to warmer weather in Australia."
Passengers will not need to be vaccinated to board trans-Tasman flights, but will be required to wear a mask and to download the New Zealand COVID tracer app.
In some instances, possibly in a response to recent outbreaks, passengers may have to undergo a pre-departure test.
On arrival in New Zealand, random temperature testing will be undertaken, and Jacinda Ardern would not rule out passengers being placed into quarantine, in the event of COVID outbreaks in Australia.
Ms Ardern said that was only likely to happen in the event of "multiple COVID cases of unknown origin" in an Australian city.
"People will need to plan for the possibility of having travel disrupted if there is an outbreak but to help people plan ahead and name decisions around their travel we want to share as much information as we can about our decision-making," she said.
"Once we know about a case in Australia we will have three possible responses - continue, pause or suspend (flights)."
Originally published as NZ travel bubble flights 'selling like hot cakes'