17 Dec 2021

Domestic airline passengers call for consistent policing of vaccine passes, mask use

7:31 pm on 17 December 2021

Airline passengers fear the ad hoc approach to vaccine pass checks and inconsistent policing of mask wearing are undermining the government protection framework.

Person in medical mask and protective gloves waiting for train at subway station.

(file photo) Photo: 123rf

Mask wearing is mandatory on all flights, unless passengers have an exemption - but there is no requirement to produce an exemption card.

There were angry scenes at Wellington Airport this morning when some Jetstar passengers confronted a party of ten who were not wearing masks.

A police spokesperson confirmed officers attended the incident.

Two of the people were visibly displaying their exemptions.

The airline had already spoken to the other eight about their exemptions, and police were provided with this information.

However, there is no government requirement for passengers to prove they are exempt.

Daniel Nielsen who was on the Jetstar passenger on the flight from Wellington to Christchurch, said the presence of so many unmasked passengers on the flight made others nervous.

"I did ask if there was anything we could do, and the Jetstar staff said they could get me on another flight.

"But I had to come back for work and kids and that so I took the chance."

Other Jetstar passengers criticised the lack of checks on vaccine passes.

Current travel requirements are that any person aged over 12 years and three months leaving Auckland between 15 December and 17 January must either be fully vaccinated or have a negative test within 72 hours of departure.

They are required under the Covid-19 Public Health Response Order to show their My Vaccine Pass or evidence of a negative test to a transport operator or enforcement officer when asked.

However, it is up to airlines how they enforce this.

Jetstar is relying on self-declarations and spot checks.

One woman, who flew from Auckland to Wellington yesterday for work, said the airline did not check her vaccine status when she checked in online or at the airport.

"I turned up at the airport, I thought maybe they would be checking at the security gates, you know, you do your laptop, you do your liquids, you do your vaccine pass, but there was no-one. I didn't see anyone have their vaccine pass checked."

Her colleague, who checked in at the counter, was asked if he was vaccinated but was not required to show his pass.

The woman, who did not wish to be named because of her job, said it made a mockery of the government mandates.

"I didn't realise it was a 'try your luck, get on the flight and they might not check your vax status'.

"For me, I felt it was a health and safety risk to be sat next to someone who could be carrying that viral load and be unvaccinated."

She flew back with Air New Zealand, which requires every passenger to prove their vaccination status before checking in.

"I think Jetstar will just become the anti-vax airline. Because if you're not getting checked, you're just going to turn up, check in online and hope for the best, aren't you?"

A Jetstar spokesperson said the airline was meeting all of the Government's requirements, including complying with vaccination and pre departure test requirements.

"We have worked closely with the New Zealand Government to develop approved processes to ensure customers are aware of requirements and meet the criteria to fly.

"This includes email and SMS alerts prior to travel, updates on the Jetstar travel alert, a pre-flight health and vaccination declaration which customers must complete at check-in, and spot checks of certificates or pre departure test results at Auckland."

An Air New Zealand spokesperson said customers had been "overwhelmingly supportive" of the Government requirement to wear a face covering on board.

"Since the requirement came into effect, we have operated more than 110,000 flights and have only denied travel to 11 customers for failing to comply.

"There are a small number of customers who have legitimate reasons to not wear a mask and may have an exemption.

"Under the Government requirements, exemption cards are not mandatory. We trust our customers to do the right thing and follow public health guidance, and in the vast majority of cases this is what we see.

The Government says it is not currently considering the introduction of mandatory face covering exemption cards.

Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins was not available for interview, but a spokesperson for the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet Covid-19 Group said it was "up to each individual to make sure they are aware of the requirements and that they follow them".

"At all levels of the Covid-19 Protection Framework, it is mandatory for people to wear a face covering while on a flight. This is each person's responsibility, with Police using a graduated response model to support compliance, with an emphasis on education first.

"However, there are genuine reasons why some people may be legally exempt from wearing a face covering, such as a disability or health condition. If someone has genuine reasons for not being required to wear a face covering, they're still entitled to access businesses and services in the same way everyone else is. "

Transport operators are able to determine what level of checking is practicable for their service, in line with the requirements on passengers and their own conditions of carriage.

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