South Island exporters get lifeline as freight flights resume

Premium South Island exporters have been given a post-lockdown lifeline.

Modified passenger planes will fly freight out of Christchurch four times a week, providing a cargo corridor for exports like meat, seafood and dairy products to the world.

Touching down in Christchurch on Saturday, an Emirates Boeing 777-300 arrived for the first time to pick up the South Island's most valuable exports. 

"South Island exports go all around the world, for example. The Emirates flight that will go out today has 18 tonnes of meat destined for 15 cities around the world, anywhere from London to Bahrain to Johannesburg," Justin Watson, the chief commercial officer for Christchurch International Airport, told Newshub.

The ground crew wasted no time to load 40 tonnes of meat, honey, dairy and seafood products - exports vital to keeping the economy going.

"The volumes of exports that we've seen in areas like apples, and kiwifruit, meat and dairy have been going really really well," says Finance Minister Grant Robertson.

"Part of our aviation support package was $330 million to make sure we continue to have air cargo capacity."

Normally fit for passengers, the aircraft has been refitted for cargo and will do four flights a week out of New Zealand.

With no tourists, its cargo is keeping the airlines going.

"If we look at what the air freight capacity was pre-COVID, we were doing about 600 flights out of Christchurch every week," says Chamber of Commerce CEO Leeann Watson.

"At the moment we're up to about 90 so there's definitely a very very long way to go, and as we see more production as we move through the alert levels we definitely need to see more capacity."

In total there are 56 flights taking off every week loaded full with cargo. Air New Zealand is doing the bulk of the work, with 37 flights to places like China, Australia, the Pacific Islands and US.

And the air traffic is keeping our airports ticking over too - welcome business in desperately quiet times.

"Normally in a year we would have 70,000 flights in and out of Christchurch. At the moment we've probably only got about 20 a week," Watson says.

After just two hours on the ground the aircraft is off to Sydney and Dubai - providing a lifeline and a step in the right direction for airlines and our exporters.