Covid 19 Delta outbreak: Air Tahiti Nui cuts capacity for NZ as restart doubts grow

Air Tahiti Nui is already cutting back services planned for next year to Auckland because of uncertainty over the border amid deepening fears this country risks being left behind by the resurgence in global travel.

The airline is cutting services back by a third between Auckland andPape’ete from the end of March when the new season’s flying starts around the world.This will mean two rather than three flights a week and that reduced service is at further risk without a clear steer on when border restrictions will end in this country.

Air Tahiti Nui pre-Covid flew primarily leisure travellers from New Zealand to the islands – which now have relatively easy entry for vaccinated visitors- but also flew in high-value United States and European tourists.

It also flies up to 20 tonnes of valuable exports per aircraft and while that is being supported by the New Zealand Government until next March, this would be insufficient to maintain its operations here without passengers, said Daniel Eggenberger, general manager Pacific.

”With closed borders to international travellers, we cannot fly commercially viably in and out of New Zealand.”

Auckland Airport chief executive Adrian Littlewood this week called for fully vaccinated Kiwis who test negative for Covid-19 to be able to skip MIQ from mid-December and urged the Government to outline a clear timeline for airlines so they could plan.Airlines and the travel industry say that needs to be extended to all nationalities once vaccination targets are reached in order to restore the flights that brought in close to four million people before the pandemic.

Eggenberger said any form of home isolation or shortened MIQ stays did nothing to encourage airlines to put capacity into the New Zealand market. His airline needed to know that border settings wouldn’t be suddenly changed – as happened with the suspension of the transtasman bubble – once it got back to flying passengers.

”Any kind ofsoftening of the current MIQ system and with self-isolation is just not good enough for recovery of theaviation sector.”

Air Tahiti Nui was putting more capacity into markets that had opened and were welcoming visitors and this meant New Zealand could miss out.

”That’s a major concern as other international airlines will surely do the same and deploy capacity to those international markets where they can make money and it’s only possible if we have passengers on the aircraft.”

The airline has been flying to Auckland for around 20 years and it was a successful route, connecting with Australian cities.Eggenberger said non-stop flights between Australia and Tahiti ”were on the radar” but not yet possible because of demand for its four Boeing787-9 Dreamliners given the surge in demand in the US and Europe.

”That’s where we can make money – not in New Zealand.We cannot hang in for much longer in a market where we can’t either bring tourists in and out. And a cargo operation you can not be financially valuable.”

Air Tahiti Nui was now flying about 90 per cent of its pre-Covid capacity throughout the rest of its network but just one freight flight a week to Auckland.

New Zealand is part of a group of ”green” countries whose citizens can enter Tahiti without isolating if they are vaccinated and pass pre-flight and arrival Covid tests.

French Polynesia has been badly hit by Covid with more than 40,000 cases and 636 deaths among a population of around 290,000.Latest Reuters data shows, however, shows 11 infections per 100,000 people reported last seven days compared to New Zealand 23 infections per 100,000 in the past week.

Eggenberger said the country had been open for all but about two and a half months and while the tourist industry was recovering, the influx of visitors from the US and Europe could make accommodation tight.

Both the travel sector and some health experts are pushing to allow vulnerable Aucklanders with Covid more space in MIQ instead of those spots being occupied by vaccinated and negative tested international arrivals.

Covid Response Minister Chris Hipkins told the Herald other experts backed the need for MIQ for arrivals but ”we continue to work closely with airlines and airport companies to strengthen the border and provide certainty for planning.”

Before Covid 29 airlines flew to Auckland but that’s fallen to just 12.

The Board of Airline Representatives says other carriers are already cutting planned capacity to New Zealand and reducing flights because they can’t see a plan for New Zealand to change border settings.

”Letting vaccinated Kiwis return home would send a clear signal to airlines that New Zealand is serious about opening our border, and that we will be catching up to the rest of the world in the near future,” said executive director Justin Tighe-Umbers.

”Thousands of Kiwis working at airlines and airports have given their all over the last 18 months, over 5000 of them have lost their jobs.We owe it to them to get the system moving again, so they can get back to work now it is safe to do so.”

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