Canberra Airport has formally applied to the Federal Government for it to be the Australian port for a Trans-Tasman Travel Bubble with the New Zealand capital, Wellington.
The ACT Government is supporting the bid, with Chief Minister Andrew Barr writing to Prime Minister Scott Morrison and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern backing Canberra and Wellington as destinations from which to launch the bubble.
The airport wrote to the Australian Government late on Friday and to Australian Border Force on Monday.
The key element in the airport’s strategy is the establishment of a Green Zone through each airport that would ensure there is no co-mingling with other international passengers, and the airport has sought Border Force approval.
The airport says this can most easily and quickly be achieved in Canberra, as opposed to other airports, as all of the currently unused International terminal would become the Green Zone.
The airport is looking at an incremental phasing-in of the bubble, with an initial target of one flight a day to control volumes, and a start date between 1 and 14 July to coincide with school holidays.
It says this would allow other ports and routes to be added after a one to two-week trial, and ensures the bubble would properly open by 24 July at the latest rather than mid-to-late August.
The airport wants Border Force approval to set up the Green Zone by 22 June.
In his letter to the Australian Government, Mr Byron said the airport would ensure all necessary health protocols are implemented but warns the severe economic impact of not taking pro-active steps to re-open travel between the two countries in the near term outweighs the extremely low health risk of restarting travel.
He fears that leaving the re-opening until September could tip a recession into a depression.
The airport argued in its letters that there was no longer a health reason for the Australian Government to force returning Australians (or New Zealanders) coming from NZ into a 14-day hotel quarantine as that country had been free of COVID-19 for more than 21 days. This was before two UK travellers to New Zealand tested positive to coronavirus, breaking that country’s long COVID-19-free run.
It also noted that Canberra had never had a case of community transmission and that all cases since 16 March had been in international quarantine and isolation when diagnosed.
The ACT is currently free of the virus after the recovery of a diplomat in isolation who tested positive after driving to Canberra direct from Sydney Airport.
Mr Byron dismisses any assertion that the return of the virus to NZ may cast a shadow over Canberra Airport’s bid, saying NZ still has zero community transmissions and the recent cases have been identified and are being controlled.
He said it was critical that a start date be confirmed as soon as possible, and the airport was in constant touch with government, including Border Force at operational and policy levels, the Department of Health and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
”That is day-by-day, hour-by-hour as we all work towards an outcome that would see the commencement of flights,” he said.
Mr Byron said 3500 people had registered their interest in flying to New Zealand.
”We’ve got people who want to travel to NZ to see their mother who’s in chemotherapy but don’t want to have to go through 14 days of quarantine,” he said.
The intense interest had allowed Canberra Airport to progress negotiations with Qantas and Virgin, despite it being in administration, and Air New Zealand ”on the basis of an underwritten charter arrangement which is mutually commercially attractive and risk-free”, Mr Byron told the Australian Government.
But Mr Byron is concerned that both governments are waiting on each other to say they are open to receiving Australians and New Zealanders without them having to go into quarantine.
”It may well be that across the Tasman they’re waiting for us to move first so why wouldn’t we move first?” he said.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr in his letter to Ms Ardern said that connecting the capital cities of Australia and New Zealand would not only be symbolic, safe and secure, but also a viable route for airlines to operate.
”Passengers would also be able to transit easily and in a low-risk environment to other Australian destinations on domestic networks,” Mr Barr says.
”The airports of both cities would be able to scale increases in services efficiently and provide a template for expansion of services to other destinations. Importantly, both airports are ready to support air services now.
”Prime Minister, I would value the opportunity to talk further with you about the potential of launching air services between the capital cities of Australia and New Zealand under what will be a new era of connecting our two nations,” Mr Barr wrote to Ms Ardern.