A Tauranga aviation company is showing interest in winging its way to Whakatane to offer a lifeline after the town was axed by Air New Zealand.
Air NZ yesterday announced cuts to its regional airline service from April 2015, with Whakatane lumped with Kaitaia and Westport as the three major losers due to a lack of demand.
One of Sunair Aviation’s fleet. Photo: Supplied.
The national carrier will also stop flying the Hamilton-to-Auckland route from February 2016.
In the aftermath, Tauranga-based Sunair Aviation chief executive Dan Power has expressed interest in servicing Whakatane Airport with a 12-seater Cessna Caravan along with ten Piper Aztec planes, reports Whakatane radio station 1XX.
Dan also says other destinations would be available instead of just Auckland if they were to take over. Formed 22-years ago, the privately-owned company operates a fleet of nine twin-engine aeroplanes.
Air New Zealand chief executive Christopher Luxon said the company’s fleet of 19-seat aircraft had been losing more than $1 million a month for more than two years.
In addition to the route withdrawals, he also revealed that Air New Zealand would progressively move the remaining destinations to larger 50-seat aircraft, requiring a $300 million investment in 13 new and more efficient regional aircraft.
The decision angers Whakatane Mayor Tony Bonne, particularly after the council and the government had jointly invested $180,000 on new airport lighting following the airline’s request.
He adds the national carrier has previously denied having any plans to cancel flights from the district and the investment was after consultation with Air NZ about the future of the service.
“The major disappointment is the fact that they didn’t consult with us,” says Tony.
“One division of Air New Zealand was leading us up the garden path because we are just investing $180,000 in new airport lighting and they were giving us indications that we need it because it’s essential for their flights in the long term.”
The lights are yet to be installed, but with contracts signed and sealed it is too late to pull the plug and the equipment is expected to be installed for future use.
Tony says he was assured the airport’s future was secure for at least another five years in a meeting between Whakatane District Council and Air NZ six months ago. Half-a-year later the airport has been put on the chopping block.
He adds: “Air New Zealand quite proudly gets up and says ‘we are the national carrier, we service provincial New Zealand’. My answer is ‘yeah right’! They are only going to cities now.
“They have record profits - they are doing very well, thank you.”
“It’s about dollars [for Air NZ], but it should be about service to the people of New Zealand.”
Since the announcement the mayor has been inundated with angry messages and phone calls from residents looking to boycott the national carrier, and even set up a protest.
“There is anger,” adds Tony. “There are people saying they aren’t going to use Air New Zealand for international flights. Some are saying they will drop their koru membership.
In the meantime he will be working closely with local MP and Minister of Social Development Anne Tolley in an attempt to have this decision reviewed in light of the key role that air services have in promoting regional development and contributing to local economic activity.
He also welcomes any interest from other carriers, including Sunair and another already lining up for a meeting.
“This decision ignores the social and economic impacts that will be felt by smaller provincial centres such as ours,” he says.
“Having a direct service to Auckland is immensely valuable to our area and that service cannot be replaced by operating services with larger aircraft from centres which are at least an hour away by road.”