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Air Chathams preps for take off with discounted fares, reduced services

20 May 2020  By Chris Hutching | |

The airline provided essential services to the Chatham Islands during lockdown. Image: Supplied

Air Chathams is ending seven weeks of hibernation to relaunch scheduled flights from its Auckland Airport base to Whakatane, Whanganui and the Kapiti Coast.

General manager Duane Emeny said services would begin this Sunday 24 May, and prices would be discounted initially to encourage people back into air travel and rebuild confidence.

Longer-term, he expected the company would drop its bottom tier prices, as Air New Zealand had.

Duane Emeny

Air Chathams has implemented a strict Covid-19 alert level 2 hygiene policy, which included increased aircraft cleaning and free hygiene packs for all passengers including a face mask to be worn on flights.

The airline took a 90% drop in revenue during the Covid-19 lockdown

There were no redundancies for the 150 employees but the company had been unable to offer work to its independent contractors since level 4.

“Everyone received the subsidy and contractors applied for it themselves. We will need the extension and we’re very grateful for that,” Emeny said.

“We still operated some flights to the Chathams. But most of operational teams were at home. Our management group caught up on administration tasks and looked at future projects. So it was a useful time.”

During the lockdown, Air Chathams received funding through the Government’s aviation support package for essential services to the Chathams Islands.

Ministry of Transport officials required an analysis of operating costs.

Some of the money went to direct and indirect costs and a percentage to the operator’s costs of hibernation.

“It allowed us to run return flights from the Chathams to Wellington, Christchurch and Auckland,” Emeny said.

He did not expect to cut back the destinations of Air Chathams services but the frequency of some flights had been significantly affected.

“It’s anyone’s guess how long it will take to recover our previous growth.”

In November 2019, Air Chathams increased its Whakatāne to Auckland service for the summer season prompted by growing demand for air travel to and from the Bay of Plenty. This followed the launch of a Norfolk Island international service two months earlier.

“A trans-Tasman bubble and allowing flights into the South Pacific will benefit us greatly. I’d say we will be back to 70% of normal operations once that happens,” Emeny said.

When flights resume at the end of this week, social distancing would require some flights to be capped, depending on which of the 15-strong fleet craft were being used.

For example, the smaller Saab 340 aircraft were used on the Whanganui and Kapiti services, which would reduce passenger numbers.

But Whakatane was serviced by a Fairchild Metroliner with an aisle providing distance, Emeny said.

Flights to the Chatham Islands and Norfolk Island were primarily made by the pressurised turbo-prop Convair 580 aircraft, with two pilots and a flight attendant.

Air Chathams staff and the Emeny family, which owned the company, had been overwhelmed by messages of support throughout the lockdown.

Emeny was also chairman of the Tourism Chatham Islands Committee, and he was keen to learn more details about access to Government funds and what would be supported.

Nearly all visitors to the Chathams were domestic visitors rather than international.

Emeny said Budget 2020’s focus on spending was the only option for the Government.

“The country would be in a worse position if they didn’t. Long term, the debt levels will be of concern.”

He hoped the money would go into infrastructure projects supporting the regions so pockets of New Zealand would see it coming through.


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