Emirates to continue New Zealand rebuild as Covid-19 recovery steps rolled out

Emirates’ New Zealand boss says the building blocks for an aviation recovery are being laid and is confident the airline will be able to further rebuild its operation in this country.

Services to Auckland and Christchurch fell from 21 a week before the pandemic to nine a week last year, with just four of those being passenger flights and the rest freight-only.

Country head Chris Lethbridge said the airline, which has been flying to this country for the past 18 years, was still heavily committed to this market where it has backed Team New Zealand for about the same time.

The airline is aiming to get its entire global fleet back in the air by the end of the year after steadily restoring routes over the past 10 months.

He said critical foundations that would allow global aviation to climb out of its Covid-19 collapse were being put in place, including the rollout of vaccines, health passports and growing safety in air corridors – and confidence in how the travel sector can adapt to the disease.

Emirates has 117 Airbus A380s in its fleet and it is hoped that the aircraft, popular with passengers, will return to this country which for a time was one of the main destinations for the double-decker planes daily flights. The aircraft are ideally suited to ultra-long haul flying.

“At the moment we’re in a rebuilding phase and our objective is to is to get our entire fleet back in the air by the end of this year,” said Lethbridge.

While many airlines have stopped flying here altogether, Emirates still has a significant operation using Boeing 777-300s and the main constraint on passenger numbers is limited space in managed isolation.

There was high demand from New Zealanders wanting to come home and this was increasing as Emirates expanded its network towards pre-pandemic levels. The airline was upgrading product on new planes, installing premium economy for the first time.

“Obviously we’re not where we want to be but I think the key issue at the moment for us is working with the Government and agencies within the guidelines and then working within the scope of the managed isolation system.”

Lethbridge said that compared to other isolation arrangements overseas, New Zealand’s system was a good one.

“From an airline point of view it allows us, it gives us visibility of what our forward bookings look like, it allows us to plan. It allows us to get that cargo-passenger balance right based on what we know about what’s coming in.”

The airline had been given April and May MIQ space allocation and those bookings were starting to come in.

“From a passenger point of view, the people that have got the spaces will be pretty happy, they’ll think it’s great. The people that have struggled to get the spaces, not so.”

Airlines were now responsible for checking that passengers had negative pre-departure Covid tests in all countries apart from Australia and most Pacific islands before flying to New Zealand.

“The onus is on the passenger, if they don’t produce the right documentation, we unfortunately have to deny them that okay to board the airplane. We have a big role to play to make sure that process works and it’s obviously in our interest.”

The system was introduced for the United States and Britain last week and many other countries on Monday, and Lethbridge said there had been good co-operation.

“We know the aviation corridor is pretty safe into managed isolation and we know there’s increased testing going on there. Ultimately, what we all want is to deliver a passenger out the other end of isolation Covid-free.”

Emirates is based in Dubai, which is part of the United Arab Emirates. The country aims to have its population of 10 million vaccinated against Covid-19 by the beginning of April and Emirates’ airline staff have been quick to get the jab.

“It is voluntary but I believe it’s being taken up enthusiastically,” said Lethbridge. “The next step for safety in the air corridor will be all of our all of a crew being vaccinated.”

The airline has flown through other health and financial crises.

“We’ve been through some pretty tough times before. We’ve been through the GFC, we’ve been through Sars, Mers – you know, we’ve always flown through those events and actually we’re pretty good at it.”

To fly now, all Emirates crew needed a negative test and must wear gloves, masks and face shields through the whole flight.

There were very strict protocols around when they can eat and take breaks. And when they arrive in New Zealand, they stay in managed isolation hotels where they don’t leave their rooms.

“They go straight onto the aircraft, and then back to back to Dubai, so it’s a tough job for crew now.”

Fighting back into the black

The airline slumped to its first loss in more than 30 years, with the group, including airport services company Dnata, losing $5.2 billion in the six months to the end of last September. The airline has shed between 20 per cent and 25 per cent of its workforce of around 100,000.

As of last week the airline was flying 17 of its A380s and 137 of its 160 777s, with some passenger jets operating as cargo planes.

Last week Reuters reported that the airlinewas flying to about 120 destinations, compared to 157 before the pandemic.

Lethbridge said its New Zealand operations — among the biggest among airlines still flying here — needed to make money and freight was crucial.

The airline is part of the New Zealand government freight scheme and its 777s were flying meat andfresh produce to Europe and Asia.

“Airlines have lost enough money and we just can’t even entertain losing any more, so we have to get that balance between cargo and passengers right, and right now that airplane suits perfectly.”

Emirates has a specialist vaccine storage facility in Dubai and could play a part in bringing them into New Zealand.

“We’re moving them around the world now, showing us It works logistically.”

Lethbridge said travel bubbles with countries such as Australia will free up managed isolation spots for people flying in from other countries and will meet pent-up demand.

There were a huge number of displaced people around the world who could tolerate not travelling for only so long.

Lethbridge said some airlines would not return to New Zealand – 44 direct air connections had fallen to about a dozen in the past 12 months with international travel down 95 per cent. But those still flying here would have to be careful about how much they charged.

“Air fares haven’t actually haven’t gone up as much as I thought they’d would,” he said, and they would fall when supply comes back. There would be some stimulation – “if air fares are too expensive people don’t travel”.

He was confident business travel, a key part of Emirates’ business, would return strongly.

“There’s been a lot of sort of electronic and digital solutions to communicating but it still doesn’t equal face to face or a handshake.”

Emirates would be able to lock in cost savings and efficiencies it had implemented during the pandemic.

Lethbridge, 58,worked for Thai and Malaysian airlines before joining Emirates in 1997 to set up the New Zealand operation.

“It’s been a been a fantastic journey,” he says. “This is a glitch for us. — we know that we will we will rebuild very quickly.”

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