13 February 2016

Flights to the Mackenzie Country?

A proposed regular flight service between the Mackenzie District and Christchurch has been slammed by a regional flights expert as a likely flop. Because of the recent growth of international and domestic tourism to Mackenzie – guest nights rose 12.2 per cent to 591,355 in 2015 – Christchurch and Canterbury Tourism (CCT) has launched a survey to gauge how much Mackenzie residents are interested in the return of a domestic service. Regular flights between Mt Cook and Rotorua ceased in 2002 and a month-long trial of a thrice-weekly service from Mt Cook to Christchurch by Air New Zealand subsidiary Mt Cook Airline at the end of 2012 was largely unsuccessful. Tekapo and Pukaki airports are favoured as the lead contenders for any future services to be based out of. CCT's Mackenzie marketing executive Annabelle Bray said international visitors' use of regional air services was "fickle" and locals would have to be the ones that airline companies could bank on to use it. Bray said CCT was making the survey available for Mackenzie residents as well as sending it to the Christchurch residents that were known to have holiday homes in Mackenzie. "Once we've collected the results, if residents are favourable to flights, the next step would be a feasibility study," Bray said. "We probably wouldn't run that but we would certainly assist someone to do it." Bray said Mt Cook flights were very popular but the service was often hindered by weather. "We haven't really talked about the logistics of how a new service might work but I would say Tekapo or Pukaki airports are probably the most realistic places to run it from today," she said. Kiwi Regional Airlines chief executive Ewan Wilson, a former Timaru man, said the population base of the region was not big enough to sustain regional flights. "Basically you need at least 20,000 people flying to a major city for it to work unless there is a large corporate base that would support it," Wilson said. "If you were flying over a stretch of water that might change but that's not the case here. Tourism is important to Mackenzie but without all the data I see them as mostly passing through to get to Queenstown, Mt Cook, Wanaka rather than flying there as a destination. "I think on the balance it would be a really hard sell to anyone." Pukaki Airport board chairman Derek Kirke said if Mackenzie residents wanted regional flights the board would do everything it could to support it. "As we've seen in Wanaka recently it's quite tough setting up commuter services out of small centres. "But beyond the size of the airstrip required, and that will depend on what aircraft it's decided will be used, there's really no reason why we couldn't accommodate it here." Air Safaris chief executive Richard Rayward said Tekapo was a genuine option. "This is something we have looked at for a long time but it's not going to be good for anyone if it is uneconomic. We are all well aware that how often people say they will fly and how often they actually do is often wildly different. It's in the melting pot now so let's see what happens."

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