Airport owners face dilemma over new airline

Last updated 05:00 15/12/2012

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Hamilton Airport's local council owners could, like Rotorua, launch a $1-million-a-year seduction campaign to lure an international carrier to the city, but they would be punished by ratepayers, airport chairman John Birch says.

Responding to a call for Hamilton Airport to follow the Rotorua District Council's example and offer a $1m annual financial sweetener to attract an airline, Mr Birch said the facts were that Rotorua's runway was shorter than Hamilton's, and that if Waikato councils did the same thing they would be "crucified in the court of public opinion".

Hamilton Airport lost its only international carrier, Virgin Australia, in October, which blamed lack of patronage for its exit.

Meanwhile, Waikato Chamber of Commerce president Tony Begbie said the airport company should be focusing its energies on matters other than chasing another international carrier.

The region should be trying to attract a strong and experienced equity partner that could bring cash to extend the runway and provide industry expertise and connections. Mr Begbie said there should also be increased effort to attract and "perhaps support" another domestic airline.

Rotorua last year committed $1m to a joint venture marketing programme with Air New Zealand to attract Australian visitors, saying the economic spinoff was about $50m to $100m a year.

Hamilton City councillor and founder of failed transtasman budget airline Kiwi Air Ewan Wilson has urged Hamilton Airport to use a similar tactic, before new legislation shifts the cost of setting up customs services onto airports or airlines next year.

Wilson this week blamed Hamilton Airport's failure to lengthen its runway for Rotorua being able to "reposition itself as the central North Island's gateway".

Mr Birch said Hamilton Airport was facing three appeals to its successful resource consent to extend the runway to 2900 metres. An extension would enable it to handle long-haul aircraft, including the new Boeing 777 and 788, although not the Airbus 380. It would cost at least $25 million to extend the runway.

The airport was constantly working to attract new airlines, Mr Birch said.

"If we had $1m a year for the first two years and could see we had tenure after that for an airline to stay on I wouldn't hesitate to go to them. But that is not the situation," he said.

"The fact is for them (airline) to remain, they have to make money. If they don't, they don't stay.

"The runway extension is a red herring. We don't have long-haul carriers waiting to fly into Hamilton."

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Mr Birch said the airport was still working hard to attract Jetstar.

Mr Begbie said Rotorua's council had been "far more strategic" in recent years, while Hamilton's leaders had perhaps been distracted by governance issues.

The Hamilton City Council owns 50 per cent of the airport company. Other authorities in the region own the rest.

- Waikato Times

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