Coronavirus: Nelson reeling from 'absolutely devastating' Air NZ decision

By Tracy Neal for RNZ

Air New Zealand is scrambling to save costs as it fights to remain alive in a world where few are now flying.

Despite hundreds of millions of dollars of Government support, it was taking the scalpel to not only its hard-hit long-haul services, but also its ground-level operations.

Plans to cut 100 jobs from its Nelson engineering base have shocked the region.

Today the airline confirmed its services from LA to London, and Auckland to Buenos Aires are now gone for good, and it has delayed the launch of a planned Auckland-New York direct service.

Air New Zealand's engineering base in Nelson has been the heart of the region's aviation cluster, but the airline now planned to move a large portion of the work to Christchurch.

Nelson Mayor Rachel Reese said the news was a devastating blow.

"There are probably over 400 'Air New Zealanders' in the region.

"They are part of our community and for many, they are facing considerable financial uncertainty and job losses, so it is absolutely devastating for an economy of this size, and in a community so tightly-knit."

Up to 100 jobs were affected, although the airline said the option remained for some to be redeployed. It was also working to ensure those affected, and their families were well supported.

The union has slammed the move, calling it cruel and unfair.

E tū aviation negotiation specialist Paul Graham said it was causing huge stress.

"People are in lockdown, trying to look after their families, and Air New Zealand is trying to get these workers to make huge decisions about their future, and trying to consult with them about this massive change."

Graham said no one was denying the huge cashflow crisis the airline faced, but the moves to reduce workloads were opportunistic.

"Predictions when you look forward, are that the turboprop fleet, which is the fleet maintained in Nelson, would be the least-affected fleet of all.

"There is no reason we can see why they need to do this now."

Graham said there had been talks in the past about making the move, but the idea was dropped, only to be revived "out of the blue".

Tauranga-based aviation commentator Peter Clark said Air New Zealand's regional fleet was the backbone of New Zealand aviation.

He says while moving the base would be a huge shame for Nelson, the airline had to be pragmatic.

"Funnelling them all through Nelson was always a problem because you had to fly them there without passengers a lot of the time.

"Christchurch is logical and Auckland is logical - we need to build those bases and make them strong because that is our hub of Air New Zealand maintenance."

An Air NZ plane at Nelson Airport.
An Air NZ plane at Nelson Airport. Photo credit: Getty

However, an engineer at the base who can not be named has contacted RNZ to say aircraft were only ferried to Nelson without passengers if they required maintenance that would not allow them to fly with passengers on board.

"This would be true for the aircraft regardless of where they are maintained."

The national carrier announced today it was postponing the start of a non-stop service to New York from Auckland. It also confirmed it would not be resuming its suspended services from Auckland to Argentina, and Los Angeles to London.

Clark said it was no real surprise, but it was still disappointing.

"It's a sad moment, you know, because Air New Zealand has been going to Europe for such a long time and it's been a flagship route, that one from Auckland to LA to London, so it's a great shame."

He said despite the efforts made to get the Buenos Aires service up and running, it was up against Argentina's struggling economy.

Clark said the bigger concern was that the drawbridge had now been pulled up on travel to and from the lower part of South America.

"There are a lot of Latino people working in New Zealand, and have set up their home and their life here so it's going to be a struggle for them."

Air New Zealand said it was deeply disappointing, but demand for international travel had been tracking at about five percent of pre-COVID-19 levels into June.

It also said that despite plans for the Nelson base, it would remain Air New Zealand's largest regional centre.

Mayor Rachel Reese said it was critical that the government understood the impact of the changes on the region.

"If they're looking to support the aviation sector they do need to take a regional focus.

"We have other airlines also under pressure at the moment and we know that in our region, air travel and air freight is critical to our connectivity so I really encourage the Government to engage with us at a regional level."

Air New Zealand was currently operating a limited international network to keep air links open for essential travel and cargo on key trade routes.

It said resumption of services would be reviewed on a case by case basis.