Waikato's Tasman hopes fade

ANDREA FOX
Last updated 07:56 02/10/2012

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Waikato's chances of luring a trans-Tasman airline to replace Virgin Australia are almost zero, travel and airline experts say.

Hamilton Airport will lose its international status at the end of this month when the airline - previously Pacific Blue - pulls out of the city, blaming lack of patronage.

Waikato residents have failed to respond to a plea in August from airport chairman John Birch to pack the last Virgin flights to show another potential carrier there is demand.

Instead, seat bookings for August fell slightly.

Though Mr Birch and Hamilton Mayor Julie Hardaker are refusing to give up the fight to attract a replacement, a chorus of travel specialists say the harsh reality is that as far as the air traveller is concerned, Auckland is now even closer to Hamilton than ever, thanks to highway improvements and a swag of competition with wide-body jets flying into Auckland daily and keeping seat prices down.

The chairman of Jasons Travel Media and Destination Coromandel, John Sandford, said cash-strapped airlines looking for business are "going for the honey pot", which is the bigger population centres.

"Hamilton is too close to Auckland. Airlines are struggling all over the world to make a dollar.

"If there is to be an alternative [to Auckland for travellers] it has to be a true alternative - like Kiwi Air, something truly different."

But even the man who founded the initially spectacularly successful Waikato budget trans-Tasman Kiwi Air, Hamilton's Ewan Wilson, says the city is "highly unlikely" to get a new international airline.

With airlines like Emirates now daily "dumping" 500 passengers in Auckland and Australian gateways, the seat-per-miles ratio so critical to airline number-crunching puts Hamilton out of the equation, he said.

The only exception would be Jetstar, the Qantas budget offshoot.

This is the airline on Waikato Airport's unofficial radar. But Mr Wilson, a Hamilton city councillor, said Jetstar would only be a prospect if it saw a way to feed Waikato-embarking passengers on to Qantas flights for Asia and its other long-haul destinations.

Hamilton's biggest limitation was that it can only handle narrow-body jets, Mr Wilson said.

"My criticism has always been that they used the money to redevelop the terminal instead of lengthening the runway. Hamilton would have been a legitimate alternative to Auckland. It would have certainly been suited to a number of low-cost, long-haul airlines."

The only other prospect was for Hamilton to attract a seasonal operator serving the Pacific Islands for six to eight weeks in the middle of the New Zealand winter, he said.

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That sort of operation was much less price sensitive because it could incorporate accommodation deals and also suited narrow aircraft. It was the model for Kiwi's launch in the early 90s. Kiwi nosedived into bankruptcy in 1997.

An aviation analyst who declined to be named said Hamilton had "zero" chances of getting a trans-Tasman airline. "It is so close to Auckland; there's no reason to come into Hamilton. They would be better to focus on developing high-speed [transport] links to Auckland."

House of Travel commercial director Brent Thomas was also pessimistic, citing the proximity to Auckland, New

Zealand's small population, and large number of "international" airports.

"One has to be realistic about it. In the short while the chances . . . are remote."

Mr Wilson said a significant opportunity for Hamilton was air freight.

"That would require a longer runway and would be complementary with our our position in New Zealand as a significant exporter."

Mr Birch is confident there is a Waikato appetite for a trans-Tasman service.

Freedom's success had shown that loud and clear, he said.

He did not count Kiwi Air's popularity as a true measure of that appetite because it was the first and had a "novelty factor".

Ms Hardaker said it was economically and strategically important for Hamilton to attract another airline, and though the city's ability to retain such services had been "up and down" it had always been able to secure another.

Hamilton City Council owns 50 per cent of the airport company with other local authorities in the region holding the balance.

The airport company was working hard to find a replacement, with city council chief executive Barry Harris acting on behalf of council shareholders.

- Waikato Times

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