As South Australia joins Victoria and NSW on a travel pause, Jo Moir discovers the bubble’s ‘Flyer Beware’ warning is no joke. She explains the realities of pre-departure tests, local disinformation and clock-watching bureaucrats.

COMMENT: When the Trans-Tasman bubble opened in April it brought much relief to Kiwis who had been separated from family.

Heading to Brisbane as part of a family of eight (including three children under 9 and two parents in their 70s) to be reunited with immediate and new additions to the family was a no-brainer after two-and-a-half years separated.

No price can be put on family reunification, but it doesn’t come without stress, anxiety, and potentially hundreds if not thousands of dollars of unexpected costs – and that’s without being caught in a snap lockdown.

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Airlines need to operate a model that at least financially breaks even, so it’s entirely possible – even probable – that your direct flight from Wellington across the Tasman might be cancelled and replaced with one transiting through Auckland.

And if travellers can’t for whatever reason make the new flight time, as was our experience, then accommodation costs won’t be covered by Air New Zealand, even if you’ve paid for the Covid flight insurance.

Pre-departure Covid tests

It is well-established that pre-departure testing is required to return to New Zealand – and those heading overseas should find a private clinic (community testing clinics aren’t allowed) near their accommodation before travelling.

This can become a problem when 48 of the 72 hours before your flight falls across a weekend.

The clinic we went to wouldn’t do testing on Saturday or Sunday, so could only accommodate us on the Friday – anything earlier than 9.55am that day would fall outside our 72-hour deadline.

After being given a 9.30-10.30am appointment, assurances were sought from the nurses twice that we wouldn’t get caught at the airport with our swabs having been taken so close to the pre-departure testing period.

The instructions were that the relevant time was when the tests were collected at 2pm that afternoon, not when they were taken.

While six of us in the group all received our tests from 9.55am onwards – the two older members of our group were tested at 9.46am and 9.50am (five and nine minutes outside of the pre-departure period required).

Despite paying AU$145 per test, it turned out the nurses had not once, but twice, provided us with inaccurate information.

It’s unclear if they received bad advice or were at fault.

On arrival at Brisbane International Airport the two overdue tests were picked up by the Air New Zealand service desk while sorting out a baggage issue.

The tests of the other six travellers who had used online check-in were never looked at.

Immigration New Zealand was called, and it was left to the Air New Zealand staff to pass on that border staff had denied entry for the two tests outside the accepted window.

While Immigration New Zealand is well within its rights to enforce the 72-hour deadline, it makes little sense that two of the group were considered too great a risk to let into the country but not the other six.

If the two who had fallen outside of the testing period did board the plane, airline staff had warned they could face two weeks of MIQ on arrival in Auckland.

The 10 minutes they’d spend breaching the 72-hour window would have been in the airport terminal wearing masks.

By the time the flight left, with two of our family left stranded, stressed and anxious in Brisbane, those of us who had been allowed on the flight had also fallen out of the 72-hour period due to the plane being held up on the tarmac.

Air New Zealand said flight delays weren’t considered a breach of pre-departure testing.

To get same-day turnaround for their new pre-departure tests and fly out the next day, another AU$300 per person was paid, with accommodation costs.

On arrival in New Zealand those of us who had been allowed to fly home passed through Customs with nobody asking to see proof of our pre-departure tests.

Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins is on record saying that 50 percent of pre-departure tests are being checked, but the Herald has reported Hipkins’ office conceding it is probably lower than that depending on which airport passengers depart from.

When people could quite easily be slipping through the border without having received a test at all, it’s somewhat surprising Immigration New Zealand is being so heavy-handed about the 72-hour period for those who do diligently get tested.

If it’s so likely that two family members had caught Covid-19 in that 10 extra minutes, then every pre-departure test should be checked at the border, and every member of our family should have been prevented from boarding the plane, given the close nature of our contact.

Splitting up a family who had spent a week travelling together for the sake of 10 minutes was extreme.

Especially when those left behind were the oldest of the group and had been assisted along the way by other family members when it came to getting tests, transport, and bookings.

Leaving them stranded and separated from their support network bordered on irresponsible.

While being reunited with family was worth every extra penny, it would be difficult to justify the hidden costs and stress if the purpose of the trip was merely a holiday.

Our experience didn’t even run into the bigger roadblock of a snap lockdown, as many have been caught out by when travelling to Victoria or New South Wales.

That creates a whole different set of stresses, expenses and complications.

Flyers not only need to beware, but they also need to be flush with cash.

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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