Trans Tasman bubble: Australians stranded in New Zealand turn to $40,000 charter flights

The closing of the trans-Tasman bubble and the New Zealand lockdown has left Kiwis and Aussies stranded on each side of the Tasman for weeks as flights are grounded or cancelled and it has pushed some to extreme measures.

Desperate Australians stranded in New Zealand for weeks under the trans-Tasman bubble pause have been spending thousands of dollars chartering private jets to get home.

The Australian Government suspended all quarantine-free flights from New Zealand on August 18, amid the Delta outbreak in Auckland.

Since then, Air New Zealand has released a limited number of "red flights" – flights that require quarantine – to Australia, after the airline was allocated quarantine spaces by the Australian Government. But these flights have sold out in minutes, with as few as 10 seats available on some flights.

Sharon Russell has finally arrived back in Australia after what was meant to be a two-week trip to Queenstown turned into eight weeks when the Australian Government suddenly closed off travel from New Zealand without offering Australians a window to return.

After having six flights cancelled and missing out on both of Air New Zealand's red flight releases, she booked a private jet from Auckland to Sydney which took off on Monday carrying Russell, her husband, and five other passengers.

She had feared she wouldn't be home for Christmas otherwise: "I just said to my husband, 'we need to go, we need to get out of here'," she said.

"It is the only way home."

Russell, a travel agent based in Brisbane, had last week posted on a Facebook group for those stranded under the bubble, seeing if anyone would be interested in joining them on a charter flight.

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She got around 50 messages from those interested, and had initially planned to book a 14-seater plane at a total cost of $NZ85,000 ($A88,296). While she had originally wanted to fly direct to Brisbane, she discovered it was cheaper to fly into Sydney.

But when it came to actually paying the money, many people got cold feet, so in the end she downsized to an eight-seater plane at a total cost of $NZ40,000, through Australian private jet company Airly.

"That's the hardest part – you only have 24 hours to put it all together, and someone needs to front up with the money," Russell said.

"I had to put it in my name, and I had to come up with the $40,000."

Divided between six adults and a child onboard the plane, it had worked out to about $6500 each, she said. But the entire ordeal would have cost her and her husband at least $20,000, with quarantine in Sydney costing them $4000, and onward flights to Brisbane costing about $250 each.

They had also spent more than $1000 on Covid-19 pre-departure tests, which they had taken for two previous flights that had been cancelled at the last-minute.

Russell said being a travel agent had made the process of organising the charter flight easier, though it had still been "hours of work". With two weeks of quarantine ahead of her, she was considering trying to spend some of that time working with charter operators to get more people out.

"Every day I've got people pleading and begging to try and help them," she said.

Airly chief executive officer Luke Hampshire said their phone had been ringing "off the hook" over the past few days, with enquiries about flights from New Zealand to Australia.

"It's caught us off guard with how many people are still stranded there," he said.

Only a small number of enquiries had resulted in bookings, however. "Flying private isn't cheap and I think people are hoping they can sneak onto an existing flight."

Following Monday's flight, they had one more trans-Tasman flight pencilled in for the next couple of weeks. The company also had a shared private jet programme where members could book a seat on a plane, instead of an entire jet, for about the same price as a business class ticket on a normal flight.

While this programme previously only operated within Australia, they had extended it to include routes from Auckland as a result of the bubble pause.

But Hampshire said even he couldn't understand why the Australian Government wasn't providing more options to get its citizens home from New Zealand.

He pointed out that in New South Wales and Victoria, people who had tested positive for Covid-19 were allowed to self-isolate at home, yet travellers returning from New Zealand with negative pre-departure tests had to spend 14 days in quarantine hotels.

"It's good for business what's going on right now, but it's complete insanity as far as the rules and all the red tape the governments are putting up to prevent people from coming home."

Australia's hotel quarantine system is different to New Zealand's in that travellers are allocated their place on arrival, instead of having to secure a spot when booking travel.

To manage capacity, the Australian Government has a cap on the number of passengers who can arrive from overseas, with airlines receiving an allocation of passenger numbers.

Passengers arriving on charter flights are required to comply with quarantine requirements. But unlike commercial airlines, small private jets aren't subject to the arrival caps.

Brisbane-based news outlet The Courier Mail earlier this month reported on a charter flight "loophole" that allowed flights with fewer than 80 people onboard to land in Queensland without the approval of the state government, resulting in hundreds of extra international arrivals.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was quoted as telling Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk: "Passenger charter flights on aircraft with less than an 80-seat capacity do not require approval to operate from the department and as such cannot be included under the cap."

The Australian Government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Department of Home Affairs, and Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet all referred Stuff's questions to the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications.

That Department, which administers passenger caps, did not answer specific questions but confirmed it does not have responsibility for approving flights under 80-seat capacity.

Particulars of quarantine arrangements were a matter for the state or territory of arrival, including the availability of any quarantine capacity in addition to the international air passenger arrival caps, it said.

The Australian Government is next set to review its pause of quarantine-free flights from New Zealand on October 5.

Stuff.co.nz

See also: Want to be allowed out of Australia? Here's what you have to do

See also: Holiday here? No thanks, I've had enough of Australia

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