Hopes lie on Jetstar to replace lost carrier

ANDREA FOX
Last updated 05:00 16/08/2012

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Budget airline Jetstar is now Hamilton's best hope to replace its lost trans-Tasman service - but it will be up to Waikato people to reel the airline in, say aviation sector experts.

The hunt is on for a carrier to replace Virgin Australia which is pulling out its service in October, citing lack of patronage.

Jetstar, the largest low-cost airline in the Asia/Pacific region by revenue and one of its fastest growing, according to parent firm Qantas, is a logical focus now for Waikato, which in the past has strongly supported budget, cut-price services such as Kiwi Air and Freedom Air.

The airport company, whose chairman John Birch has called the loss of Virgin Australia, formerly Pacific Blue, a "speed bump not a brick wall", will not comment on speculation that Jetstar would be a good fit for the region.

But aviation sources said Jetstar would more likely respond to a vocal bloc of potential customers and Waikato mayors inviting it in, than a strictly business case approach.

Neither Jetstar nor Hamilton mayor Julie Hardaker could be contacted.

The departure of Virgin will mean the annual loss of 35,000 airport users. A Waikato University study calculated that during the three years Virgin served Hamilton, it generated direct and indirect economic benefits of $120 million for the region.

The other half of the airport is owned between four Waikato district councils.

Mr Birch said the company was not taking a "knee jerk" approach to Virgin's departure but continuing to strategically plan.

Unchanged is its intention to one day extend the runway, and its proposals to build a horse air transport hub and for Hamilton to be an alternative airport for wide body, long haul aircraft if disaster hits Auckland airport, continued to be developed.

He was pleased the airport would not have to go "cap in hand" to shareholder councils for money to prop it up with the trans-Tasman service loss.

When Air NZ stopped its trans-Tasman service early in 2009, the airport had been $21 million in debt from terminal construction and had to call on the councils for $12m.

But the airport business would be reviewed "from zero base", Mr Birch said.

Customs and quarantine officials said it was too early to know the impact on staff at the airport. Hamilton Aero Maintenance employs 50 people at the airport on baggage handling, marshalling aircraft, refuelling, freight and passenger handling for Virgin Australia. Chief executive Chris Evans said "we have a lot of planning to do".

Ms Hardaker said the city council would work on behalf of the other council shareholders alongside the airport board to "identify future strategies and operational opportunities".

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Mr Birch said "without exception" mayors and chief executives had been understanding of Virgin's business position at a meeting with the airport yesterday.

- Waikato Times

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