Travellers at a Virgin Australia Airlines counter at Kingsford Smith International Airport during the coronavirus outbreak, in Sydney, Australia. Picture: REUTERS/LOREN ELLIOTT
Travellers at a Virgin Australia Airlines counter at Kingsford Smith International Airport during the coronavirus outbreak, in Sydney, Australia. Picture: REUTERS/LOREN ELLIOTT

Sydney — An air-travel corridor between Australia and New Zealand could be trialed within weeks, a key test of how international flights worldwide can resume while the coronavirus threat remains.

Draft guidelines of how quarantine-free flights can safely operate between the countries will be handed to both governments in early June, according to the Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum, which is co-ordinating a group of government agencies, airports, airlines and health experts working on the plan.

If the recommendations are approved, trials could start in July, Ann Sherry, the forum’s Australian co-chair, said during a virtual briefing on Wednesday.

Tightly controlled flight bubbles — which can be enlarged to include other countries — have emerged as potential models for a global travel industry smashed by the Covid-19 pandemic. China and South Korea opened a narrow travel corridor with onerous restrictions this month, while border restrictions have been lifted in some parts of Europe.

“We see ourselves probably as the first bit of international travel, but hopefully not the last if we can make this scalable and set the pre-conditions for making this work more broadly,” Sherry said during the briefing.

Australia and New Zealand have largely suppressed their domestic coronavirus outbreaks, though pockets of infections are still emerging in some parts of Australia.

That relative success has given the close neighbours the confidence to consider clawing back some trade and tourism income. New Zealand is Australia’s most popular travel destination while visitors from New Zealand to Australia trail only those from China.

The group drawing up guidelines for the Australia-New Zealand flights are considering every stage of the journey. They include precautions on board the aircraft, passenger movement through airports and contact-tracing requirements at the destination, the forum said in a statement.

Travelers will have to declare they’re healthy before they fly, and might sacrifice their fare if they’re ill, Sherry said.

Speaking at the same briefing, Auckland International Airport CEO Adrian Littlewood said travel protocols might be different if the flight bubble expands to include places such as Singapore and Taiwan. Health tests might become part of the process, though they probably won’t be required for trans-Tasman flights, he said.

Sherry said they’re pushing to deliver the draft plan to governments as soon as possible. “We need them to think about it so that we can push to start the trial, once everyone’s comfortable with it, with a bit of optimism, maybe for the July school holidays.” 

Bloomberg