Coronavirus: New Zealand's regional flights in doubt after COVID-19 shutdown

Empty airport gate.
Empty airport gate. Photo credit: Getty

By Rachel Thomas of RNZ

Some regions face the possibility they'll be left without air travel links post-COVID-19 as regional airlines drop down the Government's support list.

Money from the Government's $600 million aviation support package has been spent on keeping freight and lifeline links running, including with smaller players.

But it's left those that aren't deemed 'essential' fearing they'll never take to the skies again.

Sounds Air connects Wellington to Picton, Nelson and Blenheim, and flies other routes Air New Zealand pulled out of over the years.

But the airline has received no support from the Government's aviation package.

The managing director of Sounds Air, Andrew Crawford, said he is making every effort to keep his airline afloat but is being met with brick walls.

"We've been working through the wage subsidy, but it's going to run out and when it runs out then it's over, we'll go into receivership.

"And maybe the line is we'll just let them go broke, and that's just what we'll have to do. Maybe that's the way it's gong to play out, who knows."

Sounds Air employs 80 staff and links Wellington with Blenheim, Picton, Westport and Taupo, and connects Blenheim to Parapapraumu and Christchurch.

Air Chathams has received funding to make three return trips to the Chatham Islands each week, carrying essential freight like medical supplies and food for the islands' residents.

But its routes to the Kapiti Coast, Auckland and the Bay of Plenty are suspended indefinitely.

General manager Duane Emeny said these service scraps are keeping Air Chathams alive.

"So what we were able to do is get funding to have a minimum of three return flights a week, one to each of the ports we fly to [in the Chathams] anyway, and then offset the rest of our costs to effectively put the rest of the airline into hibernation.

"Without that, we would have been in a very difficult position."

The Ministry of Transport said support for airlines is being assessed on a case-by-case basis.

The ministry's manager of economic regulation, Tom Forster, said priority is being given to routes that carry essential food, medicine and COVID-19 tests to remote communities.

"Locally, Government has fast tracked eight initial funding agreements with airlines and a ground handling company around the country totalling up to $4.7 million.

"This scheme is providing direct support to regional airlines like Air Chathams, Barrier Air, Fly My Sky, Island Air Charters and Air Napier for airfreight capability and to maintain the resilience of New Zealand's aviation system."

Forster said it is reviewing applications from others who provide lifeline services or freight and Sounds Air is welcome to apply.

"Ministry officials have had a number of discussions with Sounds Air, and continue to explore options to support the aviation sector. However, the airline has not made a formal application for support under the airfreight support scheme," Forster said.

Sounds Air doesn't provide carry freight or provide lifeline services.

But Andrew Crawford said this goes against the assurances Transport Minister Phil Twyford gave him prior to lockdown.

"We're just looking at what's happened to the $600 million. And it's in relation to what Phil Twyford said to me on March 18. He said: 'We're not going to let you guys down, we're going to support the rural networks, you're a key part of the infrastructure of this country'.

"He rang me at 9:50 on Tuesday, March 18 and told me that. Those were the key points of conversation. He said, 'I want you to deal with the [Ministry of Transport] and make it happen. And then we dealt with the ministry and it wasn't that story at all'."

RNZ asked Twyford for an interview regarding that conversation, but he was unavailable.

In a written response, he said Sounds Air needs to show the ministry "how it can adapt to the sharp decline in domestic travel, as other airlines have done".

Barrier Air has received funding for two return flights a day to Great Barrier Island, to provide essential needs only.

Its chief executive Nick Pierce said this is okay for now, but they will need to have another chat once the immediate crisis ends.

"The focus of the business has turned certainly away from profitability to just survival.

"When the time is right there will be another conversation to be had around the economic recovery, or the recovery of the aviation industry."

Twyford said the Government will consider extra funding support for aviation services "where needed" after the lockdown.

But Crawford said it wouldn't take much help now to ensure they can survive in regional New Zealand when this is over.

"We're not talking tens of millions of dollars or anything like it. It's a very small amount to keep regional New Zealand connected. And it's absolutely critical that these small planes are flying because Air New Zealand are going to have big planes flying with no passengers."

Crawford said he was approaching the ministry again on Tuesday to say he has exhausted all other options to keep his airline afloat and 80 staff employed.

RNZ

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