There were tears and hugs on both sides of the Tasman on Monday morning as hundreds of passengers landed on the first flights in the travel bubble between Australia and New Zealand.
Qantas boss Alan Joyce was at Sydney airport for the departure of the first quarantine-free flight to Auckland, describing the development as “immense”.
It’s the first time in 400 days that people can travel quarantine free,” he said.
“We’re adding 16 flights a day to New Zealand. You can see behind me all the people checking in. We’ve got 630 people back to work just because of this bubble. The excitement from our pilots, cabin crew, it’s immense.”
With the rules changing at a minute to midnight on Sunday (New Zealand time), for the first time since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Australians can enjoy relatively unrestricted international travel and avoid hotel quarantine when they return home.
For New Zealanders on this side of the Tasman, the day marked the start of a return to normal when going home is only a short flight away.
The first flight headed for Auckland from Sydney took off about 7am. It was delayed about an hour because some passengers hadn’t properly filled out their COVID-required paperwork.
Hours later, they were among those who walked off the plane to joyous welcomes in Auckland, the first regular arrivals to bypass New Zealand’s hotel quarantine system since the start of the pandemic.
Heather Lyberopoulos, 56, an anxious aunt ready to reunite with her sister, said she “had to be” on the first flight out.
“It’s some sort of normality for me to be able to go home. I’m grateful,” she told the ABC.
“I’ve missed one funeral, one graduation. We had to livestream, but we adapted.”
She had booked a one-way flight, ever aware the situation could quickly change and she might not be able to return.
Isabella Buckney, 26, and Troy Godfrey, 25, were moving to New Zealand on Monday.
The couple will spend some time with family in Auckland before a move to Queenstown in time for snow season.
“We had our flights booked for May last year … so we’ve been waiting since then,” Ms Buckney told the ABC.
Mr Godfrey said Monday marked a significant day in the pandemic.
“It’s a massive point in the whole pandemic in terms of getting to that new stage of adapting to life,” he said.
“It marks a new stage and I’m glad it’s finally happening.”
Ms Buckney said the special position Australia and New Zealand were in made travelling during the pandemic “feel natural”.
“If I was flying anywhere else, maybe I wouldn’t feel so calm,” she said.
Travel bubble opens up opportunities
While some international travel has been possible for some Australians, it’s been heavily restricted and not without hefty costs.
The travel bubble means Australians are now free to visit an international destination without applying for permission from the federal government or the burden of hotel quarantine at their destination or when they return home.
The bubble opens up the opportunity for tourism as well as easier, and cheaper, family reunions.
For Wilana Rawiri, 29, hotel quarantine was a “deal-breaker”.
“We weren’t going to go back, but we have a funeral so we’re just blessed that it’s opened up in time for us to go and pay our respects,” she said.
“We’re grateful. It’s just in time.”
From ghost town to a little buzz
After a year of empty departure halls, Australian airports added dozens of flights to departure boards on Monday morning.
More than 30 flights will depart each of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, while flights will also head for New Zealand from Perth and Gold Coast airports.
Adelaide can expect to flights across the Tasman commence in early May, and the airlines have promised flights to New Zealand will also come to Cairns and Hobart.
Qantas, Jetstar and Air New Zealand have all announced new routes between the two countries, taking advantage of the rare opportunity to move passengers across international borders without the lengthy, and costly, hotel quarantine layover.
Qantas and Jetstar will initially operate 122 flights a week across the Tasman.
Air New Zealand will build to 300 flights a week, with plans to be at peak capacity in time for the ski season and July school holidays.