Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Crunch time looming for airlines to NZ

New Zealand travellers’ re-entry into the world could be derailed by a shortage of airline capacity, an industry group warns.

While business travellers await details of a home isolation trial scheme for 150 people, this country risks being left behind in the fight to attract airlines, says the Board of Airline Representatives.

”New Zealand’s in competition with the rest of the world and the starting gun’s been fired,” said the board’s executive director Justin Tighe-Umbers.

Airlines needed firmer signals from the Government about reopening the country in order to plan services, he said. Otherwise, they could pull out, making it harder for New Zealanders to reconnect with the world leaving an already devastated tourism industry even worse off.

Before the pandemic close to 30 airlines served New Zealand but this had more than halved with many of those remaining running just skeleton passenger services and concentrating on freight.Auckland Airport says it is working closely with airline customers to remind them of the opportunities here when mass travel could resume safely.

Tighe-Umbers said he knew of no airlines had formally announced they wouldn’t return but it was coming to a critical time for them as the United States, Britain and many European countries eased restrictions for vaccinated travellers.

”They’ll be shifting the limited number of aircraft up to those markets.Country managers here are telling me they’re seeing increased focus from the network planners on the performance of routes down here.”

Additional flights that were hoped for over summer were being pulled from the system.

”Early next year it’ll be two years since Covid hit and airlines are at that point going to be looking at a booming northern hemisphere market. And the danger then is we will see the pullouts happening then if we don’t get this clear path forward.”

Inbound leisure travel was the main driver of airline capacity to this country.It effectively subsidised outbound travel by Kiwi businesspeople and holidaymakers and there was little clarity about when overseas tourists would be welcomed back.

While there would be fierce competition on the reduced number of routes as travel resumed, Tighe-Umbers said it was likely fares would rise because of reduced capacity.Fixed costs faced – such as air navigation charges and passenger service charges – were likely to rise also.Travellers would likely face fees for pre-departure and/or arrival Covid tests in what will be a much different travel environment.

He said one way of helping airlines maintain connectivity would be the extension of the Government’s air freight subsidy programme, the Maintaining International Air Connectivity’ (MIAC) scheme.

The Government last year allocated $372 million and another $170m when the scheme was extended to the end of October.An announcement on whether it will be extended is pending and Tighe-Umbers said it was critical for the survival of services.

”With current border restrictions in place and no clarity as to when they will change, extending the scheme is critical for keeping our remaining air links open,” he said.

”Without this support, many airlines won’t be able to operate commercially viable flights. MIQ restrictions mean most flights coming in are below a third full, making it nearly impossible for airlines to cover costs even with a full cargo load.”

The scheme had been a lifeline for exporters who need to get their primary produce directly to markets, and bringing in critical air freight such as the vaccine and medical supplies.

Extending the scheme to March will give breathing space for airlines.

”By March we’re confident with a vaccinated population we’ll see some border restrictions starting to be lifted, and more flights becoming commercially viable as a result.”

Auckland Airport’s general manager aeronautical commercial, Scott Tasker, said of the 29 airlines which flew into the city before the pandemic 11 were still flying here with passengers, numbers of which depend on MIQ vacancies.

”The critical reason airlines are flying here is to carry cargo.The numbers are looking good and back towards to 2019 levels and there are higher rates.”

This has kept a few airlines here.

When the airport company restructured last year the air service and market development functions were retained to help rebuild when travel recovered.

”This has enabled us to stay very close to our airline customers and through doing that we’ve been able to remind them why New Zealand was a good place to fly pre-Covid – we’ve also been able to put forward recovery forecasts,” said Tasker.

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