Intense lobbying is under way by the ACT government and airport executives to involve Canberra in direct flights to New Zealand when quarantine-free travel resumes, probably in April.
The New Zealand cabinet is expected to meet on Monday to finalise plans, with the earliest possible resumption of flights three weeks later.
Air New Zealand said: "The Australia and New Zealand governments have been in discussion about the possibility of a trans-Tasman bubble."
Canberra Airport's chief executive Stephen Byron has been talking to airlines, particularly Qantas. Virgin and Air New Zealand were also on his radar.
He expected Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane would be the first destinations to get direct flights - but he said Canberra should not be ruled out.
Mr Byron's talks with airlines have been in tandem with the ACT government's lobbying of the federal government and the New Zealand government.
"The ACT government has been involved in ongoing discussions with the New Zealand High Commission, the Canberra Airport, Airlines and the Australian government on the potential of a Canberra-Wellington travel bubble in a COVID-safe way for many months," ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr said.
At the moment, New Zealanders can fly to Australia without having to go into quarantine, though, they do have to go into quarantine when they return home. Australians have to go into quarantine when they travel to New Zealand.
But on Thursday, New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern offered hope of quarantine-free travel both ways in the near future.
"I am confident we will be able to do it soon. We haven't put precise dates around it just because we want to make sure when we announce it, we can give something definitive to people," she said on New Zealand radio.
New Zealand's COVID-19 response minister Chris Hipkins said airlines and airports would need at least three weeks to get ready for flights with minimal risk of the virus crossing the Tasman.
It's understood there have been at least 12 meetings of officials at the foreign ministries in Canberra and in Wellington.
The New Zealand foreign affairs ministry told The Canberra Times:
- "New Zealand and Australian officials are continuing to work together closely on preparations for two-way quarantine free travel.
- Preparation work has had to adapt to deal with new complexities, such as new variants of COVID-19, and occasional cases of COVID-19 on either side of the Tasman.
- Officials are working on an approach that requires robust processes for information sharing, dialogue on the operations of a Safe Travel Zone, and communications.
- New Zealand's fundamental priority is to ensure we have all the necessary flexibility to respond to any situation in the way that best protects the health of New Zealanders."
The ACT government said it was exploring ways where testing and proof of vaccination could be registered before boarding.
"We are seeking a model that using testing and declarations would allow significantly reduced, or quarantine free, travel in both directions," Mr Barr said.
"Once the model could be proven with New Zealand we would be open to pursuing a similar arrangement with Singapore."
Once the decision in Wellington was taken, airlines would then decide on routes depending on their profitability - hence Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne being first in line.
But as the vaccine rolls out, and perhaps testing and a register of those who have had the jabs was developed, more airports should follow. As more people travel, Canberra becomes more viable.
Mr Byron was frustrated it had not already happened. He said the airport was ready once the go-ahead was given. "People who have been denied their families and friends don't need a big lead-time to go," he said.
Singapore Airlines said it would not return to Canberra in the foreseeable future.
It suspended direct flights to Canberra Airport in September after three years of operation. A spokesman for the airline said any Australia-Singapore travel bubble was unlikely to reverse the suspension.
"At this stage, we have no plans to recommence regularly scheduled services to Canberra," he said.
"We continue to monitor travel demand and will continue to be nimble and flexible in matching our capacity to meet the demand for air travel."
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