I’ve never been to prison, but I suspect arriving at Sydney International Airport on April 19, 2021 – the first day Australians can fly out of the country in over 13 months – feels a lot like picking up your baggy full of belongings before they open the gates.
Walking through the doors, there’s a heightened sense of excitement in the air as travellers – some Australians keen to ‘holiday the sh*t out of New Zealand’ (as overheard at the check-in counter), but predominantly Kiwis returning home to reunite with their families after a lengthy time apart – make their way to the check-in counters, which already have a steady stream of passengers enthusiastically getting their passports out.
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By the Qantas entrance on Monday morning, the launch day of the tran-Tasman travel bubble, a gentleman on guitar plays a selection of classics guaranteed to tug at the heartstrings.
There is a steady stream of Crowded House and an emotional rendition of Hoke Maira that gets tears flowing within the first few chords.
“I’m going home to Christchurch to see my 88-year-old mum who’s not been well,” says fellow passenger Maggie (surname withheld) as she fights back tears beside me. “I haven’t seen her in 18 months so this is an incredibly emotional day for me.”
April 19 marks a historic day for Australians. After more than a year of international border closures, Qantas and Jetstar today resume regular flights between Australia and New Zealand with the opening of the two-way trans-Tasman bubble.
A total of 630 Qantas and Jetstar employees are back at work, more aircraft are in the air (flights are resuming to all pre-COVID destinations in New Zealand across 15 routes and Qantas today begins a new route between the Gold Coast and Auckland. My flight, the Q143 Airbus A330, I’m told, is close to full capacity.
A garland of balloons, both green and gold, and white and black, adds to the festive feeling, as does the airport crew walking along with bottles of bubbles. What really makes the difference, however, is walking up to the check-in counter and seeing a sea of happy, smiling (well, “smizing” behind their mandatory masks anyway) staff happy to be back at work and welcoming international passengers.
No one is stressed about the large family with a removal truck full of baby accoutrement repacking in front of them, no one cares about others pushing in for photos.
We’ve all reverted to island time, island vibe. “It’s just so wonderful to see everyone again,” Antoinette, the lovely lady behind the counter says to me as she checks I’ve completed my health screen online and stamps the passport I’ve finally been able to dust off.
“You should have seen it here yesterday – absolutely lifeless.” I get so teary that I completely forget to give her my frequent flyer details and choose to lean against the counter and cry like a mafia widow at a televised court trial instead.
Check-in complete, I find myself face-to-face with two of my current favourite things, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce (as a travel writer, I appreciate his optimism), and a large pavlova he is holding. “Quarantine-free travel has been almost 400 days in the making,” Mr Joyce says.
“The reopening of the two-way bubble is fantastic for family and friends who are reuniting after so long apart, and for the many jobs which are so heavily dependant on tourism.
“It means we’ll be able to get more planes back in the sky and more of our people back to work.”
It would be remiss to add that as Joyce addresses the media, news crews hover around every corner, the odd passenger cries happy tears and laughter echoes through departures like some sort of overwritten Disney movie in the ‘before the parents die’ flashback scenes.
It’s a funny thing when you haven’t travelled internationally in over 13 months; you forget how to pack. Attempting to go through security, I not only realise just how exciting it is to do things like place a passport in the slot and gaze sullenly at a camera, but how foreign it seems to have to remove boots, jackets and oh yes, those bottles of water.
I’m obviously not the only one feeling relaxed; staff casually tell us to line up where we want, and for the first time of ‘Dilvin Yasa’ and ‘flying internationally’, I don’t get the extra special security screening as I go through (I suspect I’ve got the kind of face that looks as though it enjoys taking down commercial aircraft as a hobby).
“Let’s hope the pilot remembers what he or she is supposed to be doing at least, huh,” my friend utters as we pass through.
It’s worth noting you have to accept a box which reads, ‘You may have to stay in New Zealand at considerable expense if borders close.’ Frankly, after a two-week family “holiday”, I almost relish the thought.
Past security, it’s straight up to Qantas’ reopened First Class Lounge. First Lounges in Sydney and Melbourne as well as its International Lounge in Brisbane are currently welcoming Platinum One, Platinum and Gold frequent flyers along with Business customers and Qantas Club members.
The lounge is pumping and once again, there is a ‘vacation vibe’ among both staff and travellers relieved to feel a sense of normality after a difficult year for everyone.
Tomas Llones, a self-confessed ‘pioneer’ of Qantas hospitality is back in helping for the day and says the relief is palpable.
“It’s an absolute joy to see the smiles on everyone’s faces, and of course, seeing everyone going back to work,” he says before insisting I order every dish I have my eye on Neil Perry’s delectable menu.
Unusually, travellers are engaged in conversation everywhere you look; there is no hiding behind screens today. “What takes you to New Zealand?” you hear, over and again.
“You returning home or enjoying a holiday?” After a year of social isolation, it’s clear people want to connect and are using this shared experience as a starting point.
“I’m going home to see my dad who was in a crash,” one lovely lady says, eyes welling as she stands beside me. “I’ve been wanting to go home for so long so today is a very big deal.” Things get so emotional that I don’t catch her name.
Queuing up at Gate 33, staff move up and down serving muffins and bubbles as a guitarist serenades us with, you guessed it, more Crowded House.
On-board, masks are mandatory with the exception of mealtimes, but staff are as friendly as ever, asking us what our plans are when we get to Auckland and touching on how hard this past year has been for everyone.
Settling in, I fill in my New Zealand Passenger Card (Question 17: If required to do so, will you enter and remain in managed isolation or quarantine?) and note the carnival of plane spotters huddled in groups overlooking the runway and the helicopters hovering to catch the money shot of the first overseas-bound Qantas flight to depart Sydney.
By the time the Qantas video starts playing with the oh-so-family, ‘I still call Australia home’ and we take off, rivers of tears along my row are being quickly wiped away.
The 2.5-hour flight is as wonderful as it is quick. A meal service with a choice of braised beef and mash or a chicken and chickpea salad is served, and before we can really get comfortable and enjoy being in international airspace again, we’re touching down in New Zealand where families and loved ones embrace in tears.
It’s emotional for everyone and by the time I leave the airport, I’m exhausted.
Look, I love our sunburnt country as much as the next person, but geez it feels good to be able to leave it occasionally. What a privilege.
This article originally appeared on Escape and was reproduced with permission