October 6, 2008

Flying Low


Use it or lose it, Hamilton. Your international airport could be canned if passengers continue to bypass it. City editor Warwick Rasmussen has his eye on the sky.


An alarming drop in overseas travellers using Hamilton Airport could put its future as an international terminal in jeopardy.

And the worrying trend has airport bosses issuing a "use it or lose it" warning to potential passengers.

In the year to June 30, the airport's overseas passengers plummeted more than 15 per cent, from 104,000 to 87,000.

On the flipside, domestic numbers were up for the same period by 4.6 per cent.

But the seven weekly international flights out of Hamilton - to Sydney, the Gold Coast and Brisbane - were not as full as they needed to be. Some flights were less than half full, which could not be sustained long-term.

Hamilton International Airport chief executive Chris Doak conceded that the scale of the drop was cause for concern.

The removal of Melbourne and Fiji flights had contributed to the decline, but there were also other major factors at play, he said.

They included passenger "leakage" to Auckland, fuel price rises and the slowing economy, domestically and worldwide.

"A worst-case scenario is for Hamilton to lose its international flights altogether, as has happened at Palmerston North," Mr Doak said.

But he said it was not all doom and gloom.

"We've had no signal from Air New Zealand that they'll pull out the flights.

"That's not on the cards at the moment."

Air New Zealand Tasman Pacific general manager Glen Sowry was not available for comment, but spokeswoman Andrea Dale followed the company line on international routes.

"As per comments at our annual shareholders' meeting on September 24, Air New Zealand currently has all routes under review to ensure its long-term sustainability in a challenging global economic environment."

At least five airlines fly from Auckland across the Tasman throughout the week, with higher frequency, more convenient times and lower flight costs.

A sample internet comparison showed that the cheapest Air New Zealand return flight in March next year between Hamilton and Sydney was $512 (before taxes and other costs).

The cheapest Air New Zealand return flight out of Auckland was $384, a saving of $128.

Budget airline Pacific Blue came in at $367.48.

But Hamilton International Airport chairman Jerry Rickman said there was more to improving international numbers than just flight price.

"We've introduced a flat parking fee of $28 for all international travellers to park as long as they want at the airport," Mr Rickman said.

uicker check-in and processing times, flying out of the "backyard" and overall convenience were also factors.

There was no doubt that the airport company was worried, he said, but a combination of support from Air New Zealand and the flying public would help ease the situation.

"It's a difficult time for aviation generally. All companies are looking at their routes and we're acutely aware of that.

"The challenge to the region is to become more aware of the international service out of Hamilton, then backing it."

Last month Air New Zealand and the airport launched a marketing campaign aimed at promoting Hamilton's international flights.

A new campaign would focus on the "advantages and convenience" of the airport's facilities.

Air New Zealand took over all Hamilton services from its former subsidiary company Freedom Air in April. Improvements included an upgrade to in-flight entertainment, meals, and Air New Zealand air points.

Why aren't you flying from Hamilton International Airport?

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