Boss of Larry Page-backed air taxi startup Wisk has answer to MIQ scramble

Monday's MIQ virtual lobby scramble

• Queue peaked at 31,800
• People waited online from 8am NZT
• Vouchers began being released at 9am and were gone by 11.30am
• 5364 people from 117 countries ‘won’ 3205 MIQ vouchers for 3205 rooms

Following Monday’s “virtual lobby” clamber, the head of one of the hottest startups operating in New Zealand – electric, self-piloting aircraft startup Wisk, backed by Google billionaire Larry Page – says New Zealand needs to take a leaf out of Queensland’s book when it comes to the mad scramble for scarce MIQ spots.

On August 25, the Australian state’s Premier, Annastacia Palaszczu announced plans to build two dedicated quarantine facilities, each with 1000 beds.

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“Wisk NZ is looking to do critical research with the NZ Government that will support the fast-growing aerospace industry in New Zealand. This work will not only grow the industry but adjacent industries and create highly skilled jobs and training for New Zealanders,” Wisk NZ director Anna Kominik said in a post to Linkedin, and followup comments to the Herald.

Formed as a joint venture between the Larry Page-backed Kitty Hawk and Boeing in 2019, Wisk is testing a self-piloting electric air taxi, dubbed the Cora, at a site in Canterbury. It has partnerships with the Crown the Airspace Integration Trials Programme announced by Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods, and Air New Zealand.

“To continue our work we, like so many other start-up companies doing R&D in Aotearoa, rely on bringing experts and their equipment in from overseas to help train our own people and complete the work,” Kominik said.

“We are currently attempting to bring in a New Zealander from Australia. The equipment and skills they are bringing are not available in New Zealand and the work we are doing has a direct benefit for New Zealand and our future prosperity and growth. Already the NZ aerospace sector is worth $2 billion and it is (conservatively) expected to grow to $30 billion by 2030,” the Wisk director said, quoting MBIE research.

“Our MIQ processes are an important safety net, but they are also creating a challenge for the future of Aotearoa in a Covid-normalised world,” she continued.

“At the moment, we (Wisk) are in the virtual MIQ lobby with more than 20,000 others – individuals and families trying to get home to sick relatives; New Zealand sports and business people trying to come back from business trips and sports competitions; as well as New Zealanders and skilled people are trying to get through to take up much-needed roles … Let’s look across the ditch.”

Business-booking MIQ

Kominik elaborated to the Herald, “Wisk would like to see a system that is fair to everyone needing to cross the border. There seems to a number of issues at play; a need for more quarantine facilities – preferably outside of a city centre to decrease leakage) – some sort of prioritisation system for individuals and businesses-booking MIQ, and an adapted testing regime for pre and post-departure – potentially leading to shorter MIQ stays.”

She added, “We would have no issues paying extra at a dedicated quarantine facility if that supported a fairer and more effective MIQ system that addresses the current constraints and still helps blunt the Covid risk.”

Covid Response Minister has been asked for comment on whether his government is open to building a standalone MIQ facility to help address the supply issue.

A number of tech industry figures – including telecommunications consultant Jonathan Brewer, stuck in Singapore – have said they would be willing to pay extra for private MIQ spots.

And a hotel broker at Colliers says about 18,500 extra New Zealand hotel rooms could be used to vastly boost managed isolation and quarantine capacity.

Brent Thomas, chair of the Travel Agents Association, says the Government should let his members run the system.

Virtual lobby swamped

Meantime, the new booking system is causing fresh frustration.

Social media was filled with rage posts after the new “virtual lobby” MIQ booking system went live yesterday.

While it was a two-hour lottery-style experience – a step-up on spending days, hours or weeks in front of keyboard hitting refresh under the old first-come, first-served system – it was clumsily presented.

Many screen-grabbed their number in the “queue” as numbers spiralled upwards during a one-hour waiting period, and most went away empty-handed.

'Not a silver bullet'

Brewer – who has been stranded in Singapore for months – was not any more of a fan of the new MIQ booking system than he was of the last.

“This system is designed for selling concert tickets, not for helping people get home. I don’t think anyone involved in this project is going to be putting it on their CV. I know I wouldn’t,” Brewer said.

But whatever the issues with the booking system itself, the fundamental problem is the shortage of MIQ spots.

After the final washup, MIQ joint head Megan Main said, “Today 5364 people from 117 countries managed to secure MIQ vouchers – that’s 3205 rooms. At its peak, there were 31,800 in the queue.”

Vouchers began being released at 9am and were gone by 11.30am, Main said.

“I know many thousands of people missed out on vouchers in today’s release. I want to reassure people that there are still several thousand vouchers still to be released through to the end of the year. They will get other chances. There will be another large release of a few thousand vouchers early next week and there may also be another smaller one later this week.”

People would again be given advance notice.

Main also cautioned, “Although the new lobby system should improve user experience, it is not a silver bullet — it will not fix the issue of supply and demand.”

After being crammed in a virtual lobby with 31,800 others in the tussle for 3205, Kiwis attempting to return home barely needed reminding that that was the crux of the issue.

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