The trans-Tasman travel bubble kicked off on Monday without any major hiccups. Many are hoping it will run smoothly and, in doing so, provide a template for future travel bubbles. But as with any deal, there is always the fine print to consider.

How the Australian-New Zealand travel bubble works

The travel bubble allows most New Zealanders and Australians to travel back and forth freely and skip quarantine. Vaccinations are not required, but there is some health screening at departure and arrival airports. If passengers are displaying cold or flu symptoms, they will not be allowed to board their flight. Further, if passengers have been outside either country in the 14 days before traveling, quarantine-free travel is not available. This won’t be a problem for the vast majority of Australians who haven’t been allowed to leave the country for over 12 months.

Inflight, the normal heightened health and hygiene rules apply. Passengers are required to wear masks in both airports and on planes. Airlines will space out people where they can. There wasn’t much spacing out on Monday. Flights were chockers. The Qantas CEO was positively beaming on television as he reported fully booked flights across the day.

This is really good news,” Alan Joyce told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Monday morning. “It’s the first time in 400 days that people can travel quarantine-free. We’re adding 16 return flights a day to New Zealand, and they’re full,”

There were lots of nice scenes of overwrought Grandmas seeing their young grandchildren for the first time in ages, and in many cases, for the first time at all. A weird welcome to Melbourne bubble dance at Melbourne Airport provided another talking point.

Promising start, but potential hazards along the way

It all looks promising. While the Australian Government is talking down expectations, they are in discussions to open a travel bubble with Singapore. If New Zealand were to join the fray, it wouldn’t so much be a travel bubble but a travel triangle.

“We’re still hopeful there’s the potential for more travel bubbles like New Zealand,” said Mr Joyce, rattling off a list of possible destinations in the South Pacific and Asia with low infection rates.

In the meantime, arrival airports in Australia and New Zealand are prepped to separate passengers arriving on quarantine-free flights and those not.

“Our terminal separation came into effect today, with all arriving passengers needing to go into managed isolation now being processed in Zone B, our fully separated mini arrivals processing area,” said Auckland Airport’s CEO Adrian Littlewood on Friday.

Australians arriving in New Zealand will have to download New Zealand’s tracer app before arrival and provide comprehensive contact details for their time in New Zealand. This allows them to be contact traced if needed. Australia is also collecting additional contact and planned travel information from incoming New Zealanders.

Australia has been letting most New Zealanders skip quarantine since October. Subsequently, the separation process at Australian airports is a little more embedded.

“Hopefully, the safe reopening between Australia and New Zealand can be used as a blueprint for other international markets throughout the year,” said Melbourne Airport’s Lorie Argus on Monday.

Travel bubble rules could change at short notice

What’s the catch to all the happy airport vibes? Both Australia and New Zealand are reserving the right to suspend or end part or all of the travel bubble if there’s an outbreak or a risk of infections jumping the Tasman Sea. Both countries warn it’s a case of flyer beware – you’re welcome to go, but be warned the situation may change very quickly at very short notice. Potentially, you could get stuck in the wrong country.

“Once we know about a case in Australia, we will have three possible responses when it comes to flights and access to our border, and we’ve captured these with a framework based on continue, pause, or suspend,” said New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern earlier this month.

But both countries are getting better at responding to small outbreaks. Knee-jerk reactions are getting reined in, restrictions are far fewer, and governments are drawing on a year’s worth of tracing and response experience. That bodes well for the success of this travel bubble.

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