16 Mar 2020

Covid-19: Airlines, airport brace for the worst as self-isolation kicks in

8:26 am on 16 March 2020

There won't be any warm welcome for travellers arriving in New Zealand from abroad today, with people coming from anywhere but the Pacific being told in no uncertain terms: self-isolate for at least 14 days.

Been in US at international conference

Matthew Rogers was finding it hard to speak to someone at Healthline about a Covid-19 test after arriving at Auckland Airport from the US. Photo: RNZ / Matthew Theunissen

The new rules - which are among the toughest travel restrictions in the world - were announced by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern on Saturday and came into force at 1am today.

Airlines have been scrambling to implement the new measures and fear the impact they will have on the aviation and tourism sectors.

The Board of Airline Representatives of New Zealand, which represents 28 airlines, believes they will need government support if they are to get through the crisis.

Executive director Justin Tighe-Umbers called the measures "swift and unexpected" and said they have got airline staff rushed off their feet.

"They understand the public health is a priority and the airlines are moving rapidly to support the government as best they can," he said.

"However, as you can imagine behind the scenes airline staff are scrambling. They're also faced with a rapidly evolving global situation. This is an incredibly challenging time for their people and they're working as hard as they can to support passengers."

Tighe-Umbers said what happens over the coming weeks will have a significant impact on airlines in the longer term.

"What is clear is that these changes are placing airlines and the wider aviation sector in New Zealand under considerable financial pressure.

"The government's financial support package will be critical to ensuring the future health of aviation and tourism in New Zealand."

Given their sharply increased workload, airlines are urging people who need to change or cancel flights to hold off on doing so unless they're travelling in the next 48 hours.

Auckland Airport chief executive Adrian Littlewood said while it's too early to say what the impact of the new restrictions will be on the airport and its partners, it will be significant.

"For the early part of March, we've already seen international passengers drop about 18 percent. There's no question that this change now is quite material and will influence passenger volumes from here on in, we just can't say yet what that looks like."

Justin Tighe-Umbers, the Board of Airline Representatives of New Zealand executive director and Adrian Littlewood, who is Auckland Airport CEO

Justin Tighe-Umbers, left, and Adrian Littlewood, who is Auckland Airport CEO, address media at Auckland Airport. Photo: RNZ / Matthew Theunissen

At the airport yesterday, a large number of passengers wore face masks and people could be seen greeting each other with elbow bumps instead of hugs.

Matthew Rogers was taking no risks, wearing a heavy-duty mask and surgical rubber gloves as he waited on hold to speak to Healthline, hoping for a Covid-19 test.

"I've been in the US at an international conference with people from Europe - from everywhere. So obviously right now I'm a little worried," he said.

"I've been on on the call with Healthline for the last hour trying to get through to try to get a test but it seems nobody's answering."

At the taxi rank outside, some of the drivers had waited for over four hours to get a fare due to the shortage of passengers.

Eyob Manyahele said it had been a huge blow to his family's finances - and he feared it will get worse before it gets better.

Hit hard by new travel restrictions for coronavirus

Taxi driver Eyob Manyahele has seen his income plummet. Photo: RNZ / Matthew Theunissen

"Business has been halved pretty much - our profits have been halved. And there's big uncertainty - we're struggling big time. It's been really bad."

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday introduced the same restrictions for overseas arrivals to Australia.

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