You've been Jetstarred: Cheap flights vs good service

DAVE ARMSTRONG
Last updated 08:15 03/09/2012
Air NZ 737
DOUG FIELD/Fairfax NZ
FLYING HIGH: Air New Zealand charges like 'wounded bulls' because it has a monopoly on regional routes.

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Dave Armstrong

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OPINION: It was meant to be a family reunion commemorating the death of a beloved relative. Air tickets were booked and the two sisters, both working their guts out in part-time jobs to put themselves through university, arrived at Wellington Airport on Sunday morning in plenty of time for their flight to Auckland.

But then they were Jetstarred. All Jetstar flights to Auckland that day had been cancelled. Fog? A crack in the tail of the plane? A terrorist alert at Auckland airport? After much obfuscation the reason was given - "engineering problems". Sometimes an indicator light fails and passengers patiently wait a few minutes before take- off for the fault to be fixed. But every Jetstar flight that day cancelled due to a single engineering problem? What happened - did a wing fall off?

The girls were told to return next day, and were offered an orchestrated litany of food and drinks. Nice try, but if you want a lesson on the evils of monopoly capitalism, dine at Wellington Airport.

Realising the reunion could be missed, tears flowed, friends were called, credit card numbers were yelled over the phone and eventually the girls got to Auckland. Everyone said: "Thank God for Air New Zealand even if it does cost an arm and a leg to fly at short notice".

If this was a one-off incident I would simply dismiss it as one of the perils of air travel, but the same family got Jetstarred the same way three months earlier. Around the same time my niece tried to return from Australia for a long weekend. By the time her delayed Jetstar flight actually left Melbourne it was so late she would have had to turn around again on arrival in Auckland so she spent what little was left of her weekend telling her Facebook friends she would never fly Jetstar again.

The few times I've flown Jetstar have been fine. Having to be there an hour early is irritating but their fares are low. When the Jetstar air hostess "arks" everyone to board, this atheist secretly prays that the pilot is a little more educated. But the landings have been smooth and on time. However, if I'm flying to something important, it has to be Air New Zealand. I want to be sure of actually getting there.

So how does an airline become so disliked by so many New Zealanders? Though Jetstar's prices are low, so are its margins. This means it has a small fleet. If one flight is delayed, there is no fleet of spare planes to swing into action, so there is a flow-on effect.

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But there is one reason I am grateful to Jetstar. Every time a Tory argues that the private sector does things more efficiently than the public, I say "What about Jetstar and Air New Zealand?" and the conversation turns to the weather.

Yet, as any National MP will tell you, Air New Zealand is exactly the successful public- private model that the Government wishes to see for the assets they are partially privatising. Trouble is, as much as I like Air New Zealand, especially when Jetstar's cancelled all its flights because a Christchurch plane refueller has a headache, our state airline also has its problems.

Have you ever tried flying to Gisborne at short notice? It'll cost you slightly more than going to Samoa and slightly less than Perth. Because Air New Zealand has a monopoly on most regional routes, they charge like wounded bulls. Is this an example of a state enterprise using its monopoly to rip off people in the regions? Possibly, but it could also be what happens when private investors buy part of a state asset. The state may want to provide an affordable service but private investors will be looking to maximise profit - even if it means gouging Gizzy.

What would be wonderful is a state airline with the level of service that Air New Zealand provides, but that is also affordable to those on low incomes and in the regions. You may be right to think that I'm dreaming, and that it will only happen when pigs can fly Jetstar.

- The Dominion Post

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