Duane Emeny, right, of Air Chathams said the company had been invited to consider flying from Masterton’s Hood Aerodrome. PHOTO/AIR CHATHAMS

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MARCUS ANSELM

marcus.anselm@age.co.nz

Wairarapa politicians are ready to fly from Hood Aerodrome, but airlines are not set for take-off.

Wednesday’s announcement of a multi-million-dollar investment in the airstrip relaunched talk of a Masterton-Auckland commuter trip.

Councillors, MPs, and officials seem keen to attract commuter flights back to the airfield.

But with airlines reeling from the covid-19 lockdown, big city arrivals are not imminent, says the company most often linked with running the service.

A $17 million local and national government pledge will pay for runway widening and lengthening, and infrastructure upgrades.

Masterton District Council will supplement the $10 million from central government with $7 million in funding, from its renewals budget, reserves, loan funding, and user fees and charges, Kath Ross, MDC chief executive said.

Ross said the work aimed to “transform Hood from a community airfield, supporting recreational pilots and a select group of commercial operators, to a centre for cutting-edge commercial activity, manufacturing, and training, alongside existing and new tourism attractions and businesses”.

“This work will open the door to some exciting opportunities for future business development.”

But Air Chathams, repeatedly linked with landing in Wairarapa, are interested in talks only at this stage.

Air New Zealand ended regular flights linking Masterton to main centres in 2014.

It was thought smaller providers would see a gap in the market. But they have been reluctant to sign up to date.

Duane Emeny, Air Chathams’ general manager, said they had to be persuaded to submit a business case to Masterton District Council last year.

“You know it’s getting hard when they come to you and say “can you please put an application in?,” he said.

“We thought about it, decided ‘well, we will’. But in all honesty we limped into it.

“We weren’t overly impressed with the research that had gone on into what services there would be.”

He said the company had held talks in the past with Wairarapa representatives, and would again.

But Hood’s current infrastructure was “really limited” for the fleet.

“I haven’t been privy to the detail but what I understand it’s a widening and lengthening of the runway. Our CEO, my father [Craig Emeny], said to the Mayor [Lyn Patterson, of Masterton] point blank that is what absolutely must happen. It looks like they’ve taken that onboard, and got that across the line with government, which is great.”

Emeny said he did think a service could be successful, but had concerns over bureaucracy across all Wairarapa’s districts.

“We think there may be strong demand as it’s a beautiful part of the world and there are a lot of people who live there who do business in Auckland, or internationally.

“It’s quite similar to Whanganui in that respect.

“My only concern would be the separation of districts, from north to south. With recent experience, it could be like in the Kapiti Coast, where each community is fragmented and slightly unique.

“I think Wairarapa is similar, so it’s hard to get that real parochial support that we do get in Whanganui and eastern Bay [of Plenty] regions.”

He said although the propect was “a long way away”, Air Chathams would “certainly be interested in a conversation”.

However, the impact of the pandemic response made expansion in the short term highly unlikely.

He said the company had scaled back about 35 per cent of its schedule after international flights out of Auckland ended.

International flights dropped by 95 per cent during lockdown, and connecting services are a main source of airline income.

Patterson said, “it is no secret that we want an air passenger service to return.

“Without this service, our regional businesses lack important essential national and international connectivity.

“And with the large number of people moving to the Wairarapa, re-establishing a link to Auckland would enable people to commute to Auckland.

“It would also support the region’s tourism sector.”

As one of the shovel ready projects funded by central government, the upgrades at Hood Aerodrome should start within 12 months.