By TRACEY ROXBURGH
A QUEENSTOWN travel agency’s done a Covid-induced pirouette, hoping to do its bit to help.
While xtravel co-owner Victoria Keating says shifting to focus solely on repatriation flights may have started as a way to help the business survive, the motives now are personal.
Keating, her business partner Niki Davies and travel expert Fanny Lindblad Hillary have co-
chartered two flights into New Zealand and Australia from South America last year, and had four return services.
A fortnight ago xtravel confirmed a solo private charter bound for Chile, leaving Auckland on February 26, at the ‘‘very scary’’ personal cost of $US500,000.
‘‘We’ve had so many people reach out to us now and ask for help that we would be completely inhumane if we didn’t do something,’’ Keating says.
While Australia has given xtravel 122 seats — 90 of which will be in Melbourne with the remainder flying on to Sydney — no NZ seats have been allocated.
That’s because there is no capacity in MIQ until May 31 — and bookings aren’t being taken
after that date at this stage.
Keating says they’re already ‘‘oversubscribed’’ for the inbound flight, so ‘‘we know we’re probably not going to lose our houses’’ and ‘‘possibly not our cars, either’’.
There are also 289 outbound seats — some passengers will be picked up in Sydney, flown to Auckland and remain on the plane while NZ passengers board before the 12-hour flight
direct to Chile departs.
While that was ‘‘slightly harder’’ to sell, primarily due to existing, cheaper commercial services, Keating says those flights take about 70 hours.
They also carry the risk of ending up stuck in transit countries due to flight cancellations.
‘‘The majority of people who will actually get on to one of our flights [from South America] will have already had a minimum of four and possibly up to seven flights cancel — those are main airlines, Emirates, Qatar.
‘‘There are any number of reasons — Emirates just pulled out of Brazil for 10 days, and that’s the only flight into and out of South America with them.’’
Keating estimates there are still at least 500 Kiwis stranded in South America, many of whom are still paying rent here, who haven’t been able to get home for a variety of reasons.
‘‘Some are dual nationals who were visiting family back home for what was, essentially, a three-week holiday and they’ve been stuck there ever since.
‘‘There are a lot of people who are paying rent here and then having to survive over there as well.
‘‘People who went over to visit family and take newborn babies over to meet grandparents —dads … who stayed behind in NZ or Australia because they were only supposed to be going on a two-, three-week holiday, they’ve missed the whole first year of their baby’s life.’’
Keating says due to the amount of work involved in chartering one flight, xtravel can only focus on one at a time.
But as it stands, this month’s flight might be the last opportunity for South Americans here to get home for a while.
Immigration NZ’s confirmed those with visas expiring on February 25 won’t be impeded
from returning to NZ one day if they overstay to take the February 26 flight.
Tickets cost from $2590 per person.