15 Mar 2021

'We're ready' as businesses hang on for trans-Tasman travel deal - Auckland Airport CEO

From Checkpoint, 5:09 pm on 15 March 2021

Hundreds of businesses are hanging on for New Zealand and Australia to establish a quarantine-free travel arrangement, Auckland Airport's chief executive says.

There have been months of negotiations between the two countries, but nothing has quite got off the ground, with borders slamming shut after news of community Covid-19 cases.

Across the ditch some states have allowed New Zealanders in without quarantining - but New Zealand has not returned the favour.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern said Australia moved the goalposts which had exposed more complications.

Now it appears Australia is looking to a new dance partner - Singapore - with reports suggesting the pair could have its own bubble up and flying by July.

Auckland Airport chief executive Adrian Littlewood told Checkpoint it was a real risk New Zealand could miss out altogether.

"That's a real prospect and something I think we have to face up to and deal with.

"But we're hopeful the government's messages around the importance of the Tasman, and I understand conversations have happened with countries like Singapore, mean that some kind of arrangement might be possible to connect those countries," he said.

Risk NZ may lose out of Australia-Singapore deal

Littlewood said there was a "real risk" that Australia and Singapore could reach an arrangement that left out New Zealand.

"Obviously the vaccine rollout and how that plays will affect this, but equally we can't as a country ... be left behind while the rest of the world gets on.

"I think it is a genuine risk. And that's why I think being clear on what the path out from here, how we will connect to the Tasman in a way that's safe, I think is really important.

"There are hundreds and thousands of businesses around the country who are really hanging on particularly for the Tasman.

"Most of the businesses, particularly friends and family, who've been hoping for some connection particularly across the Tasman, will feel like things [are] looking quite challenging, let's be honest.

"They've been waiting for the prospect of the Tasman bubble to start. There are risks involved and we have to do it safely, but I think people will feel like that prospect now looks further away.

"But I'm hopeful that with the two governments working together a Tasman bubble hopefully soon might be possible, now that the vaccine rollout has started.

"We've done the physical works and the separation. It would take a few days to get things up and going to actually go from announcement to operations.

"This is something we've been planning for some time, so it's really for the government to decide when it is right to do so, but we're ready to go," Littlewood said. 

On 11 March, Tourism Minister Stuart Nash told Checkpoint there were only two states in Australia not requiring New Zealanders to quarantine. 

"The government is working very closely with the Australian federal government and with our own agencies to come up with a plan that would allow a trans-Tasman bubble to work," Nash said. 

He was emphatic that a trans-Tasman deal was possible, and said Cabinet was working hard on it. 

"I can only judge by what commentary we've heard from ministers and, obviously, from officials," Littlewood said.

"But it's clearly the things they're focusing on are issues like what happens in the event of an outbreak on either side of the Tasman.

"The message we've passed on … is, I think, in the early days of the restart travellers will put up with a bit of risk of that event happening, particularly if you're wanting to catch up with family and friends.

"If there's a scenario where you have to spend an extra three days, five days in Sydney or Adelaide or Brisbane, because of a local outbreak, I think people will take some of that risk for the privilege of being able to connect with friends and family again," Littlewood said.

'We are ready when they are ready'

He said the airport was in constant communication with officials across different agencies.

"We only have one perspective on managing Covid-19. The senior officials and politicians have a much broader perspective, so we obviously rely on that view in terms of the decisions about when it's safe to [restart quarantine-free flights]. But I can guarantee those conversations are ongoing all the time.

"While those conversations go on it is ultimately their call. We've taken care of our part of it, and we are ready when they are ready.

"I think there is a realistic time that leads into that. We're effectively going from almost zero international passengers, so we'd have to restart.

"That will take a few days. For us, obviously the government agencies will need to get going at the border, obviously airlines – there's ticket lead-in. So there are some things that do need to happen but that's a matter of maybe inside a couple of weeks for all of that to happen.

"From the moment of an announcement it could all happen reasonably quickly, but again, that decision sits with government."

A trans-Tasman travel bubble was "pretty fundamental" for Auckland Airport to make a recovery from Covid-19, Littlewood said.

"Through our results to December we posted our first-ever loss ... and our story is amplified and mirrored by many small businesses around the country who are really hurting. For them it is probably live or die.

"They don't have the same access to capital markets like we do to raise new money. They're all trying to plan out their next year with a high degree of uncertainty, and that's quite a difficult conversation to have with your bank, when you're trying to say 'I need to get through the next year' and you can't really describe when or how recovery might look.

"I think that's the really tough conversations that are happening around the country at the moment.

"I've spoken to many, even some medium-sized or large businesses for New Zealand, who are really wrestling with this.

"They've invested millions of dollars in their businesses over years, and have dipped hard into new equity to keep their businesses afloat.

"They don't know what recovery is because that path is still to be determined. And that's difficult, and that's one of the challenges we're all living through.

"We restructured our operations when Covid-19 hit and unfortunately had to let a lot of people go, cancel a lot of projects, and we're hopeful of restarting those soon.

"And we have held on to people because we are hopeful that this will get going soon.

"We'll have to continue to look at our business, and we don't want to have to take further steps but equally we have to match the status of the market and what's happening in travel.

"But we're ready to see our way through that. We've raised enough money to see our way through a range of recovery scenarios."

Littlewood said he would like to think a quarantine-free travel bubble with Australia would be running before the end of the year.

"The indications are that with the vaccine rollouts and the risk in either country, a Tasman connection is absolutely possible in safe in our view.

"But again, we don't have all the data. That is really up to the officials and politicians to make that call."