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23.04. Great Pretenders

The Ministry of Mercy Flights and Fantasy World
Today there is a story, first published on RNZ, on the www.stuff.co.nz website – that’s the website of the Fairfax media, including The Press, The Dominian Post etc – on repatriation flights from India to New Zealand. And it enrages me to read how the New Zealand government, more specifically the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), slaps its own citizens with excessive rip-off ticket prices and blocks others who would give the same people a much better deal. 

This is the link to the story: https://www.stuff.co.nz/travel/news/121204039/coronavirus-new-zealand-plane-to-fly-out-of-india-this-friday-but-at-a-cost

Why does the New Zealand government force people to get on an Air New Zealand flight at a cost of NZ$ 5,500 per ticket when there is an Australian chartering business out there that would offer the same route at NZ$ 2,300 per person? This offer was turned down by the New Zealand government.

While it is surely true that the NZ government even has to absorb some of the cost of the flight, kind of justifying the high price, it is not fair to lock out competition for the national carrier and force people into debt when there would be a cheaper option. 

The high price of repatriation

It has been the same story with New Zealanders repatriated from Peru. They had to pay twice as much as Australians being flown out on flights chartered by the Australian government.

We have seen repatriation flights from other countries. Price-wise I remember a flight from Auckland to Paris, organised by the French government, at the cost of 830 Euros per person. That’s NZ$ 1,500 at the moment. The German government, which has repatriated 200,000 people up to now, charged normal economy class fares out of everywhere, including New Zealand. And even if it is the cost of an early-booked return trip at NZ$ 2,500 to 3,000, no-one had to pay NZ$ 5,500.

The excuse by MFAT was that the New Zealand government chose Air New Zealand for the flights from India because they couldn’t guarantee privately chartered flights would actually go ahead, and one of the carriers had “a mixed safety record”. 

This carrier, chosen by a group of Australian citizens who have already brought 2,000 of their compatriots back home, was the large South East Asian low-budget airline Lion Air which indeed is not considered the best airline in the world, and was barred from EU airspace until 2016. But they flew hundreds of Australians back home from India. The story on stuff.co.nz quoted a New Zealander from Waihi Beach who took up the charter provider’s Lion Air flight to Melbourne and then carried on to Auckland on the same day.

Streamlining processes according to MFAT

MFAT is surely correct in stating that it is far easier and more practical to streamline the process by using Air New Zealand. “Government-assisted options enable a more cohesive All-of-Government approach with respect to agencies responsible for assessing and processing inbound flights”, the statement said. Particularly mentioned were Immigration, Ministry of Health, Police and Customs. 

I just wonder why all these processes run smoothly with incoming flights of other carriers than Air New Zealand. From arrival all processes are identical, and as long as all incoming passengers are transported straight to quarantine facilities, it doesn’t matter on which airline you arrive. 

I also notice a need for simple solutions in New Zealand government departments and agencies - as if they had employed more idiots than anything who weren't able to understand more complex processes. (And well, I have made such experiences LOL)

I agree that it is easier for a government ministry like MFAT to negotiate ground transport options to the airport with their counterparts overseas. But having made my own hugely differing experiences with the German AND the New Zealand embassies in Argentina, I can only say that MFAT and their embassy in India could easily have negotiated with the responsible ministry in India and then provide permits for travellers who had to travel to the airport(s). Due to the registration on the TravelSafe website they know who is where and all email addresses are known.

In Argentina this worked perfectly with the Germans – while New Zealand did nothing, and the embassy even closed.

Starting later than most other countries

Four or five weeks after everyone else the New Zealand government has started to organise a few repatriation flights – and uses these few flights to promote and praise the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade for their oh so passionate work for stranded Kiwis all over the world, claiming they wouldn’t give up on anyone.

This was another story https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/health/coronavirus/121080575/how-to-get-thousands-of-kiwis-home-when-the-world-is-shutting-down that enfuriated me, given my personal experience when I was stuck in Buenos Aires. (Lucky me not for long because I found a way out without MFAT’s “help”.)

Chris Seed, the head of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), was allowed to tell about his department’s “efforts”, unchallenged by the writer who surely has not missed the stories of abandoned New Zealanders all over the place.

The facts in the story: On 17 March MFAT told New Zealanders to get on a flight home. [This was the day before Air New Zealand left thousands of New Zealanders stranded in the whole world, including me in Buenos Aires. I had a flight back home with Air NZ on 22 March.] On 19 March MFAT told Kiwis at home not to travel. Then on 24 March it told all those Kiwis overseas that they should actually sit tight and "shelter in place" - unless they had a rock-solid route home.

MFAT's account and timeline not correct - and there was no help

Unlike in this account and timeline, I was told by MFAT on 18 March already to be prepared to hunker down in a hotel in Buenos Aires for several weeks, as the NZ government could and would not help, and I quote a guy named Andrew: “We can’t really help. We are ONLY the Government and not Air New Zealand.”

I did not expect the New Zealand government to fly me home, and surely wasn’t one of those who, according to Mr Seed, had a somewhat unrealistic hope that New Zealand would come pick them up with a "mercy flight" - some kind of charter flight that would repatriate them home.

What I would have expected was MFAT’s and the New Zealand embassy’s help in finding the commercial flights that would still have taken me back home, just the way the German and the French embassies did. When I spoke to the Germans on the phone, they told me which airlines were flying which routes, and the French embassy listed the exact flights to Paris on their website. 

MFAT and their embassies did nothing of all of this. The embassy in Buenos Aires even closed, didn’t take calls, wrote that unspecified commercial flights still existed (I even had a ticket for one which was partially cancelled every day) and that all other information would come through MFAT’s SafeTravel website and alert system. This was no help at all, and nobody really cared.

No real will for negotiations and quick thinking

Chris Seed is also quoted as saying: "Charters and so-called mercy flights, they're the last option when all the other possibilities have been excised. You remember a lot of the issues about mercy flights or charter flights came out of Europe, which we always thought was very odd, because even today, you can fly commercially from Europe to New Zealand. We thought it seemed people should probably have been focusing on those options rather than thinking that a plane with a koru was going to turn up." This sounds arrogant, to say the least. Perhaps he would be more humble if he were dropped in the jungle.

At the same time, MFAT either did nothing or did not succeed in negotiating with e.g. the Germans to repatriate Kiwis, stuck in Germany, on the empty Lufthansa and Air New Zealand planes chartered by the German government for the repatriation of Germans and other Europeans stuck in New Zealand. 

Somewhere I read this was due to “staffing issues” – which sounds ridiculous, given hat there were hundreds of Air NZ staff without work after the grounding of nearly their entire fleet. I just claim there was no real will – instead MFAT threw roadblocks at the Germans and halted the repatriation effort for five or six days because the quick thinkers of MFAT needed that long to work out a simple transportation strategy for the thousands of people needing to get to Auckland and Christchurch airports. 

Repatriation only makes sense when the numbers add up

Seed is right in saying that a formula needs to be found when repatriation flights make sense: You need to have a critical mass of Kiwis in a place where they really don’t have another option to get home. If there are only 30 people somewhere, a charter flight would be crazy, as the cost would be prohibitive, as the passengers would only pay a part of the real cost, which, according to MFAT, is around NZ$ 12,500. (Just for comparison: I paid more than NZ$ 10,000 on a commercial flight – which really is a bit more than what Mr Seed calls a “token fee”.) But – and that’s what I say – you can collaborate with other governments, particularly the Australian one, to make a collective effort.

The article says that since the advice to come home and as of 19 April (publication of the article about MFAT’s miracle work), more than 17,000 Kiwis have returned from overseas, but only around 500 have been put on flights organised by the New Zealand government.

In the article Seed said MFAT had a lot else it could do for any Kiwi stranded, and close to a thousand individual cases of people needing MFAT's help have been managed around the world. Some of this work is advice and even a bit of crisis travel agenting - a distressed person somewhere in the world might think there are no commercial flights available, when there actually are a few. Sometimes it's help getting prescription medicines, or financially as a traveller's money is running out.

I say: There was no “travel agenting” in my case, no help in finding the few commercial flights that were still available. I was told to make sure I had enough money and stayed in touch with family and friends. The only useful advice I got from MFAT was to contact the German embassy, as MFAT could do nothing because they were “not Air New Zealand”.

There is a big difference in what MFAT say and really do

Seed said New Zealand would not give up on anyone, and that they would use their “relationship with the Brits, the Americans, the Australians, and the Canadians, who have bigger reach”. Obviously they can’t collaborate with non-English speaking countries.

And he said: "There are a lot of things that we can and will continue to do. It's not that we're abandoning anyone."

Then I wonder what that was in the case of people stuck in Argentina – and so many other places – and why they have abandoned me. And don’t interpret this as self-pity. I am fine and don’t trust the New Zealand government and politicians anyway. I speak Spanish and I got back home without any consular help. 

I just think about the plight of others, in whichever country, who don’t speak the local language, who don’t have good nerves, who are not healthy and strong and who don't have support from home and from friends, or who simply can’t afford to get on a NZ$ 10,000 flight and purchase other open tickets. Because one thing is for sure: I was and am not the only one who was stuck in a foreign country and was abandoned by the great prentending New Zealand government. 

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