Air New Zealand’s CEO, Greg Foran, has moved to hose down speculation of an imminent trans-Tasman travel bubble. The on-again-off-again travel corridor was on again over the weekend amid sharply declining COVID numbers in the Australian state of Victoria. But travelers with itchy feet on both sides of the Tasman Sea had hopes dashed on Monday morning. Mr Foran said in an interview that he doesn’t see a travel corridor between the two countries happening until March 2021 at the earliest.
“I certainly do not believe we will see anything across the Tasman this calendar year. It’s hard to believe it would be before March next year and could well be longer,” Mr Foran told Patrick Hatch of The Sydney Morning Herald.
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Traffic on busy international corridor slashed
Flights across the Tasman are usually the busiest international sectors in and out of Australia and New Zealand. Nearly eight million people make the short flight each year. COVID-19 put the brakes on those flights, with only Air New Zealand operating a pared-back service. But with both countries seeming to be getting on top of COVID-19 by mid-2020, there was much talk of a travel corridor.
However, a second wave of COVID in Victoria centered on Melbourne, and a smaller outbreak around Auckland saw prospects of a travel corridor between Australia and New Zealand fade.
Melbourne has been enduring a harsh, city-wide lockdown that’s now having dramatic effects. There were just 11 new cases reported in Melbourne on Sunday, down from 700 plus highs in early August. Elsewhere in Australia and around New Zealand, low to no COVID cases are getting reported. That’s been enough to get people talking again about a travel corridor between Australia and New Zealand.
Trans Tasman travel bubble talk boosted last week
That included Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who resurrected prospects of travel between certain regions late last week.
“For example, the whole of the (New Zealand) South Island, that’s an area where there is no COVID,” Mr Morrison said at a press conference after a National Cabinet Meeting on Friday.
Mr Morrison confirmed that a travel corridor between Australia and New Zealand remained under active discussion. Comments like that raised expectations of a possible relaxation in border controls between the two countries sooner rather than later.
But the bosses of both Air New Zealand and Qantas, the two key carriers on the trans-Tasman routes, aren’t getting onboard the bandwagon.
Airline bosses pour cold water on hopes of trans Tasman travel resuming this year
The Qantas CEO Alan Joyce would love for trans Tasman travel to restart. But his airline has no plans to resume international flights anywhere before the middle of next year.
“What we’ve always assumed is let’s get the domestic borders re-opened first, get the rules set around them, and then potentially have the bubble country by country when we have a similar level of exposure to the virus,” Mr Joyce said in a media Q&A in August.
Mr Foran thinks several issues will hold up a travel corridor. He says current caseload numbers will play a role. But the CEO also believes problems with vaccines and testing will also slow progress.
“Elimination, which is a worthy thing to go after, is probably not sustainable based on what we’re now learning, which is the vaccine is not going to be 100% effective, not everybody is going to take it, and it’s going to take years to get distributed,” Mr Foran said.
Meanwhile, domestic traffic is bouncing back for Air New Zealand. The airline will be running at 85% of its normal domestic capacity in October. There are hopes domestic capacity might return to 2019 levels by the end of the year. Things are less sunny on the other side of the Tasman. Qantas is running at around 20% of its normal domestic capacity and operating about 600 flights a week. Its domestic resurgence is crippled by local interstate border closures and strict quarantine regimes.
The two airlines are diverging on very different COVID recovery trajectories.