Norfolk Island flights: Qantas takes over route from Air New Zealand after bubble bursts

For what it's Hemsworth, Norfolk Island, unlike Lord Howe Island to which it is often unfairly compared, is largely Hollywood celebrity-free, though it was once home to late author Colleen McCullough and the singer Helen Reddy.

But while it may be short on movie star cache (actor Chris Hemsworth along with brothers Liam and Luke is a noted Lord Howe fan), Norfolk Island - officially classed as an external territory of Australia - remains pretty much the only destination these days where border-bound Australians get to flash a passport.

The tourism dependent though fiercely independent island has again been welcoming visitors from "Australia", as the locals prefer to refer to the mainland, after an eight-month, pandemic-induced visitor hiatus in 2020.

Despite its increasing popularity, this World Heritage-listed sub-tropical isle 1700 kilometres north-east of Sydney, has become entangled in yet another curious consequence of the pandemic.

When Australia and New Zealand formed a partially-formed trans-Tasman travel bridge with each other last year, little did the Pacific island realise the trouble this would spell.

Despite its external Australian territory status, Norfolk Island, home to direct descendents of the original Pitcairn Island Bounty mutineers, is linked to Australia by Air New Zealand which operates 168-seat Airbus A320 aircraft to and from the isle.

This was the result of the Kiwi carrier being awarded a $12 million contract in 2012 by the Australian government to provide regular air services to the isolated island of around 1800 people. It makes the well-regarded Air New Zealand the only foreign airline Australians are currently able to travel on within Australia and its territories.

Passports are the preferred form of identification for visitors to and from Norfolk Island with flights departing and arriving from Sydney at the near-deserted international terminal.

But when Australia suspended the trans-Tasman bubble due to a COVID-19 outbreak in Auckland in late January, Norfolk Island was suddenly temporarily cut off from Australia, its biggest and, as it stands, sole tourism market.

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Since then there have been further suspensions of the trans-Tasman bubble following more locally-transmitted COVID-19 cases in Auckland and Qantas was drafted by authorities to repatriate Air New Zealand passengers to Australia.

A spokesperson for Air New Zealand says the Australian government's edict means any crew operating domestic flights in Australia from across the Tasman must have completed 14 days' managed quarantine, or be Australia-based.

"This is why we've had to suspend the domestic sectors between Norfolk Island and mainland Australia. Air New Zealand has worked with the Australian government and Qantas to restore air services to and from Norfolk Island and these arrangements are currently in place until Saturday, March 6.

"We are in the process of reviewing next week's schedule and will provide an update once this has been finalised. Qantas has operated a number of repatriation flights between Sydney and Norfolk Island and Brisbane and Norfolk Island."

The spokesperson says that where possible "recovery flights" have been scheduled on the same day of operation as the affected Air New Zealand services in order to limit customer disruption.

In a now relatively seamless process, Air New Zealand passengers affected by the cancellations as a result of events across the Tasman are being re-booked by Air New Zealand onto relevant Qantas recovery flights.

The welcome news for Norfolk Island and its prospective visitors from Australia is that a return journey can be assured, even though some may not object to being stranded indefinitely in such a seductive idyll, Hemsworth or no Hemsworth. 

The writer visited as a guest of Norfolk Island Tourism and Air New Zealand. See norfolkisland.com.au; airnewzealand.com.au 

See also: Our borders aren't really closed and we're all paying a price

See also: Pacific paradises: 'No reason' we can't open bubbles this year

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