Region's rush to find new carrier

AARON LEAMAN
Last updated 05:00 14/12/2012
Hugh Vercoe
Fairfax NZ
HUGH VERCOE: ‘‘Councils might want to give a subsidy to a suitable airline but legally we might not be able to.’’
Russell Alexander
Fairfax NZ
RUSSELL ALEXANDER: ‘‘It would be a huge advantage if international visitors could come here via Hamilton rather than Auckland; it would be cheaper and more direct.’’
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The race is on for Hamilton Airport to secure an international airline by March as the Government looks to push through legislation that could result in crippling customs costs.

Hamilton City councillor and founder of Hamilton-based budget airline Kiwi Air Ewan Wilson said Hamilton needed to follow the example of Rotorua and offer a financial sweetener to prospective carriers but he warned time was running out.

Rotorua District Council last year committed $1 million to a joint venture marketing programme with Air New Zealand to attract Australian visitors.

Rotorua Mayor Kevin Winters said the economic return from international services was about $50m-$100m a year.

"I think Rotorua is an example of how to do it," Mr Wilson said.

"As a result of poor strategic decision-making, particularly the decision not to lengthen the runway, we've let our neighbour Rotorua reposition itself as the central North Island gateway."

Mr Wilson said the task of finding a new carrier for Hamilton was urgent because of legislation before Parliament which aims to shift the cost of setting up customs services onto airports or airlines.

He expected the new law to come into effect by March.

"This will mean if Hamilton does not have a new airline by then it would mean that a new airline or airport would need to pay for customs services which would be very expensive."

Mr Wilson estimated the costs could amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. "If they don't pull off a new carrier by March next year then Hamilton Airport's international prospects are limited."

Hamilton Airport chairman John Birch did not reply to a Waikato Times request for comment.

Matamata-Piako Mayor Hugh Vercoe, whose council owns a 15.6 per cent stake in Hamilton Airport, said he supported the idea of offering a subsidy to a carrier.

However he questioned if councils could offer financial incentives in the wake of local government reforms.

"Previously under the four well-beings we could have justified it as promoting economic development but now everything is very grey. Councils might want to give a subsidy to a suitable airline but legally we might not be able to."

Russell Alexander, managing director of the Hobbiton Movie Set Tours, predicted about 10,000 visitors would take his tours each month, adding that a large proportion would be Australian tourists.

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"With The Hobbit being launched around the world this week there will be a hell of a lot of exposure for Matamata. It would be a huge advantage if international visitors could come here via Hamilton rather than Auckland; it would be cheaper and more direct."

Air New Zealand spokeswoman Kelly Kilgour said the company was constantly reviewing how it operated but declined to say whether the airline would return to Hamilton.

A Jetstar spokesman said New Zealand was a key market and the company was examining opportunities for growth.

"We have no current plans to fly into Hamilton, however we are always open to working with airports to explore opportunities."

Mr Wilson said Hamilton Airport was a logical alternative to Auckland but needed capital to lengthen its runway.

"Ideally what we need is an investor to come in with expertise and money and we're back in the ball game. If a 50 per cent investor came in and lengthened the runway it would enable an airline like Jetstar to service not only Australia but Asia. If the airport also said for the next five years we won't have landing fees then suddenly the airport has repositioned itself as a strategic gateway."

aaron.leaman@waikatotimes.co.nz

- Waikato Times

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