Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Hamilton loses international flights

Air New Zealand has made its final international flight from Hamilton for the foreseeable future.

Mr Wilson, who blamed Air New Zealand for anti-competitive practices which he said sent his business bust two years later, was at the airport to "watch the final betrayal".

"If they hadn't come in, we would still be here," he said.

Flight NZ971, an Airbus, left for Brisbane yesterday afternoon, 10 minutes late.

Among those in the departure lounge was former Kiwi Air boss Ewan Wilson, who set up his budget transtasman operation in 1994.

The proximity of Auckland, an improved State Highway 1 and the economic downturn were contributing factors to the international airport's demise, Mr Wilson said.

But the airport company had "written its own obituary" when it decided to spend $15 million upgrading the terminal's facilities three years ago instead of lengthening the runway.

"They have somewhat reaped what they have sowed."

Passengers spoken to by the Herald were unanimous that using Auckland International Airport, a 90-minute drive away, would be an inconvenience.

Bart Geeson of Peachester, Queensland, who was visiting the city for the Hamilton 400 V8 series, said he often used the service to visit relatives.

Ron Roach of Te Awamutu said he was not looking forward to the hassle of flights from Auckland.

"It's a shame ... it took us longer to get from Auckland to Te Awamutu than it did from Auckland to Brisbane."

But Hamilton International Airport chief executive Chris Doak said that while there was obvious sadness, there was still something to celebrate.

"I think this is an opportunity to take stock and acknowledge the commitment Air New Zealand has made here over the past 15 years."

Mr Doak said that in the past 10 years the airport had catered to about a million international passengers.

At its peak Hamilton Airport had two international airlines and 15 weekly flights to Australia and the Pacific Islands.

But last year, overseas passenger numbers fell to 86,294 and the changeover from the lower-cost Freedom Air to Air NZ last April resulted in an almost instant 38 per cent drop in inbound international passenger number.

Mr Doak said the airport company was continuing discussions with low-cost carriers, which he would not name.

"There is a very proven market here, what we have got to wait for clearly is an operator who wants to participate."

The international connection brought $80 million into the region every year.

This year, Air New Zealand Tasman Pacific general manager Glen Sowry said the airline had poured "hundreds of thousands" of dollars into its Hamilton operations.

But its situation was exacerbated by six airlines offering 70 flights to Brisbane from Auckland.