18 March 2020

Covid-19 Challenges for Air Chathams

A business providing a "lifeline" to the Chatham Islands is cutting costs and axing flights as it struggles in the coronavirus outbreak. Air Chathams is significantly reducing all flights from next week, suspending flights to Norfolk Island and holding "not very nice conversations" with staff due to decreased demand, general manager Duane Emeny said. As well as providing flights to Kāpiti, Auckland, Whanganui and Whakatāne, the airline is a lifeline for the Chatham Islands, which lies off the east of New Zealand's South Island and has a population of 650. "We're the flying Countdown order, we fly everything ... we are their State Highway." Emeny said the airline flew almost 1000 tonnes of seafood off the Chatham Islands every year and, following the ban, almost immediately went from five return flights to New Zealand ports a week to two. The financial impact to Air Chathams of lost crayfish cargo alone was about $200,000. From next week, weekly regional flights between Kāpiti, Auckland, Whanganui and Whakatāne would be cut from 100 to 65, and flights between the mainland and island would drop from six to four a week. The business was "waiting with bated breath" to hear whether they would be supported by the Government's $600 million stimulus to help the aviation sector cope with the virus outbreak. "There is no other airline in New Zealand right now that could operate services to the Chatham Islands with the capacity and frequency that we do." Regardless of any upcoming Government support, the company was facing hard decisions. "The best case it's a reduction in pay, at the worst its redundancies and we're already having conversations to reduce operational costs so we can be here in a couple of months." As well as providing critical connections to the island and region during the outbreak, the airline had a part to play when the pandemic was over. "We have to think what recovery is going to look like and how much of an effect not having a regular, reliable and safe air service will have on the regeneration and growth for those communities." Emeny said it was a grim time to be in aviation but it was important people knew the airline was still flying and doing all it could to stay in business. Chatham Island's Waitangi Store owner Simone Croon said the about 60 per cent of her stock was flown in by the airline. "If I didn't have the plane my business wouldn't survive. It's the bread and butter of my business and I don't know what would happen without it." Locals were worried about the virus outbreak and she would increase her stock in the coming weeks. "It's noticeably quiet here, I think a lot of people are not coming or not going both ways." 

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