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Air NZ investigating allegations of lockdown breach by flight attendant

Air New Zealand says it's investigating after allegations a flight attendant breached Level 3 lockdown to fly as a passenger from Auckland to Wellington.

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It comes as further concerns are raised about testing and exemptions for international air crew. Source: 1 NEWS

A former Air New Zealand flight attendant, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told 1 NEWS multiple complaints have been made to the airline after a flight attendant allegedly flew from Auckland to Wellington on August 15th to visit a friend.

Level 3 rules stipulate people leaving Auckland should only be doing so under very specific circumstances, for example doing essential work, or returning home.

The former flight attendant said she and some current staff are “disgusted” by the alleged behaviour.

"She had disclosed to operating crew on the flight NZ691 on 15 August that she was flying down to operate a duty however the crew checked the passenger manifest and noticed she was on leisure travel."

"I am disgusted at this abuse of privilege at putting others at risk when many Aucklanders and New Zealanders are working so hard to abide by lockdown."

"It makes me so sad as I know many fellow crew who have lost their job and would never even consider abusing power as she has, and putting our national carriers reputation at a huge risk."

Air NZ cabin crew general manager Leeanne Langridge says an internal investigation is being carried out.

“We are carrying out an internal investigation into an incident that occurred on August 15. We are not able to comment further while this is underway.”

It comes as questions are being raised about protocols for international air crew. Currently only crew returning from so-called high-risk countries have to be tested and isolate on arrival.

Health Minister Chris Hipkins met with Air NZ this morning after voicing concerns about procedures for international air crew, but he isn't committing to blanket testing and isolation for those coming into the country.

“In some cases air crew are being required to test before they leave, when they arrive in another country, and when they get back to New Zealand which is clearly an unsustainable amount of testing for one person to undertake,” he said.

Air New Zealand outlined its protocols today, saying air crew coming from high-risk layovers like San Francisco and Los Angeles must isolate for 48 hours upon return to New Zealand, complete a Covid-19 test, then isolate until test results are known.

But that’s not required for most other layovers. The airline says Narita, Hong Kong, Shanghai are considered medium risk layovers, which means crew must limit their time outside to 1 hour per day, and wear masks and gloves when moving through the terminal. For flights from other areas, requirements are limited to wearing masks and gloves when interacting with passengers.

The New Zealand Board of Airline Representatives says the requirements for overseas-based air crew are “pretty specific”.

Executive director Justin Tighe-Umbers says New Zealanders shouldn’t be fearful of the risk from air crew, but should be worried about the economy.

“They should be worried about the economic shock if airlines pull out of the country should conditions become too stringent for them to operate.”

“The real risk we have is if you make it too tough for international airlines to operate they'll simply just withdraw their flights and we won’t see international airlines that pull out for a number of years.”

Mr Tighe-Umbers also said air crew hadn’t bought a case into the country since April.

“That tells us the current standards from the Ministry of Health are working, and it also tells us air crew are being very compliant around it.”

University of Otago epidemiologist Professor Nick Wilson says New Zealand's health response should come before business interests.

“Certain commercial interests will want to minimise costs and time delays, but really the big picture here is having really high-quality border control so that the burden on the whole of New Zealand from future outbreaks is completely minimised.”

Professor Wilson says strict PPE use isn’t necessarily enough to prevent more Covid-19 cases from entering the country.

“We know that there's been outbreaks of Covid-19 on aircraft. We know that the conditions on aircraft involve people being very close together and sometimes even if everyone's wearing a mask, they're often taking that mask down to have a drink or when they eat a meal, so masks may not be perfectly effective in that environment.”

Professor Wilson says all international air crew should be tested at least once or twice a week, regardless of where they’ve come from or what the policies in those countries are.

“I think we're really in a situation now where if a country has any spread of Covid we should treat it as high risk and all the same processes should apply. These exemptions that we've had in the past have just ended up causing us problems, so we need state of the art, and standardised processes for all these border and air crew staff.”

Grooms bringing in live horses are subject to the same rules as international air crew, so are exempt from testing and isolation when coming from medium to low risk countries.

New Zealand Bloodstock Airfreight manager Greg Northcott says in some cases, testing and isolation isn't necessary.

“In regards to our grooms, they go across to Sydney they don't leave the aircraft. They stay in the cockpit of the aircraft and then they go home so that risk is very low.”

Since the first lockdown on March 23, 318 horses have been brought into New Zealand, each accompanied by a groom.

Thirty were from Hong Kong, 6 from the USA and the remaining 282 from Australia.

Mr Northcott says all of NZ Bloodstock’s grooms are tested and isolated on return from countries like Hong Kong, even though it’s not required by the government.

“They would pose a higher-risk and we take steps to mitigate those risks, we brought the horses in from Hong Kong, those grooms go to a hotel that we book for them. They spend 3 days there and they don’t leave until such time as they return a negative Covid test.”

He says he’d support a rule change to require testing and isolation for grooms returning to New Zealand if the grooms had left the aircraft, and if they were travelling further afield than Australia.

“There’s only 4 or 5 grooms operating in New Zealand and they know exactly what they’re doing, they’re familiar with quarantine and they’re certainly familiar with what they are and aren’t allowed to do while they’re overseas.”