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Survey soars but turbulence remains

The prospect of passenger air travel returning to Wairarapa has received overwhelmingly positive support from businesses and residents, but questions still remain about who would pick up the service – and the tab. MARLEE PARTRIDGE reports.

Business Wairarapa’s survey to gauge interest in bringing a passenger air service back to Wairarapa has received an overwhelmingly positive response.

A total of 677 residents responded to the survey, 91 per cent of whom said they were likely to use an air service from Masterton’s Hood Aerodrome, while 95 per cent believed an air service from Masterton to Auckland would “positively impact the local community and economy”.

The survey asked a range of questions, including whether people travelling to Auckland are satisfied with the commute by car, bus or train to the airports in Wellington or Palmerston North [perhaps not surprisingly, 90 per cent of respondents were unsatisfied].

Responses came from each of Wairarapa’s districts, with 62 per cent from Masterton, 22 per cent from South Wairarapa, and 16 per cent from Carterton. The number of people who responded to the survey represents about 1.2 per cent of Wairarapa’s population.

Family-owned regional airline Air Chathams has already put up its hand to signal an interest in taking on the route, but chief operating officer Duane Emeny told the Times-Age there would have to be financial contributions from local councils and businesses to get it off the ground.

Emeny said he is pleased with the survey results and that there was an even spread of people interested in the route being used for leisure, family, and business – comparing this to other routes that Air Chathams successfully operates in other parts of the country.

However, starting an Auckland-Masterton route – the flights would take about an hour and 15 minutes – would be “quite a big undertaking”, and Emeny said Air Chathams is still in recovery mode after the pandemic.

“We just don’t have enough capital reserves to take this risk entirely ourselves,” he said.

“We’re going to need to see the district councils and business community feed into this in some ways so it’s a ‘fair skin in the game’ approach and not all the risk sitting on Air Chathams’ shoulders.

“You’ve got to spend the money in the first instance to get the airline there, and once they are established and people are using the service, then it really has to become self-sustaining,” Emeny said.

Emeny said while he would “love to see more feedback” from the wider Wairarapa community, the results of this survey are a “positive start”.

Masterton District Council [MDC] has previously flagged its interest in supporting the return of air travel to the region and chief executive Kym Fell noted the council has been approached by multiple airlines about the possibility.

“Our conversations with Air Chathams are at an early stage, and we have also been approached by other airlines,” he said.

“While we have not discussed commercial terms with any airline, we could support a scheduled passenger service through landing fee concessions, use of the airport terminal, and some assistance towards marketing, but that would be the likely extent of financial contribution from the council.”

MDC would not disclose which airlines have made approaches about the route, so the Times-Age contacted several airlines from across the country.

Sounds Air managing director Andrew Crawford said in no uncertain terms that his airline would not take the route and that he didn’t believe services to or from Masterton would be viable, saying it “just wouldn’t work”.

He said Sounds Air had been asked to look into the route in the past but had declined due to it being infeasible logistically and financially.

Crawford commented that Wellington Airport is “right there”, while Palmerston North also offers another nearby option.

Air New Zealand’s general manager domestic, Iain Walker, has previously told the Times-Age that there were currently no set plans to reinstate operations to Masterton but that the airline “still remain[s] engaged with the region”.

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