AirAsia X abandons Christchurch 'experiment'

ALAN WOOD
Last updated 05:00 13/03/2012

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AirAsia X's decision to suspend Christchurch services from the end of May will leave travellers with fewer choices and another hole in Canterbury's quake-hit economy.

The Malaysian airline confirmed yesterday that it would cut the unprofitable 11-hour flights between Kuala Lumpur and Christchurch which have been running four times a week since last April.

The low-cost carrier's decision is part of a change in its strategy to get out of longer-haul flights, having already canned flights to London and Paris.

The services had averaged passenger loadings of 80 per cent and numbers were at a record in January. Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism boss Tim Hunter estimates AirAsia X has provided 25,000 extra passengers and $60 million to the South Island economy and given the region a bright spot in a difficult year.

Christchurch International Airport chief executive Jim Boult said there would be a financial penalty to the airline for withdrawing early. He and others expressed huge disappointment.

The airline will offer pre-booked travellers from Christchurch the option of a full refund. Alternatively they can make their own way to Australia to pick up another AirAsia X service.

City business and civic leaders called for urgent action to replace the service with another airline from Asia or India, but an aviation analyst said the failure of the AirAsia X "experiment" would stop other airlines jumping in to offer an alternative.

"It's going to be really difficult for Christchurch then to pitch up to another airline and say `well they've failed, we'll give it a go'," aviation industry contractor and analyst Gordon Bevan said.

Typically low-cost airlines had a short space of time to test route profitability. In Europe it could be as little as three months, he said.

Canterbury Employers' Chamber of Commerce chief executive Peter Townsend said hard work was needed to bring in a replacement service and stop further erosion of flights. He found it a tragedy the introduction of the service was complicated by the earthquakes affecting travel to Christchurch.

"We can't afford to lose those sorts of services from Christchurch, and if AirAsia X isn't going to hang around, I'm sure there will be a lot of work done to find an appropriate substitute [from] Asia or India," Townsend said.

AirAsia X services were announced amid much fanfare with airline chief executive Azran Osman-Rani arriving in Cathedral Square with stewardesses and teaming up with Christchurch Mayor Bob Parker and Boult in December 2010.

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Last year Osman-Rani said the service was going well in terms of loading and the airline was committed for at least two years. But by December there were indications the flights would stop, and an attempted rescue of the service by Boult, Parker and Hunter who flew to Asia last month did not work.

Parker said yesterday the loss was bigger to the South Island as a whole than to Christchurch in terms of revenue for the tourism industry.

Osman-Rani said yesterday the decision had been difficult but took into account the airline's consolidation of its network on markets where it had built up stable, profitable routes.

Rocketing jet-fuel costs had also taken a toll.

ROUTES' DEMISE DISAPPOINTING FOR TRAVELLER

Rachael Thacker says the disappearance of AirAsia X from a route connecting Christchurch to Asia will be sorely felt.

"I think it's really disappointing to hear ... it's important to have low-cost airlines in New Zealand because [Kiwis] are such keen travellers. It just makes it so much more accessible for everyone," Thacker said.

The 29-year-old Christchurch resident said she had taken a return flight with three friends last year to have a two-week holiday in Malaysia with the $870 cost including baggage providing reasonable value.

With the lower-priced tickets it was easier to afford a wider travel budget at the destination. The group flew into Kuala Lumpur, later travelled up to Penang and had a trek in the mountains.

"We just wanted to have a break from the earthquakes in Christchurch and it was really a good-value price, so that's what was the motivating factor, I guess," Thacker said. "Once you get to Asia it's pretty reasonable as well. It was just a good choice for us.

"... I was really impressed with how reasonable the food was and the staff were really friendly and overall it met what my expectations for a low-budget airline would be."

- The Press

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