Otago Air idea brings frustrations to surface

The dream of ''Otago Air'' emerged from the hangar this week, with potential investors in support. But the idea may have crashed on take-off. What the proposal again highlighted was an issue that continues to chafe at the ego of a city clinging to its status as a major centre. David Loughrey tracks its flight path.

Fred Doherty yesterday admitted there was ''a certain potential for ridicule'' resulting from his idea of an Otago-based airline to step in following the loss of Virgin's seasonal flights from Dunedin to Sydney and Melbourne.

His ''dream'' to set up Otago Air by floating a company to lease a plane and pilots, giving Dunedin direct services to Australian cities, has produced plenty of comment and some heat this week.

The loss of the international services clearly infuriated the populace. So much, in fact, that close to 60 people this week responded to the idea, each keen to invest $1000.

Turning promises into cash, of course, is another matter.

But the Otago Daily Times' call for interest unearthed a continuing undercurrent of frustration in the South.

''I have just sent Air New Zealand an email stating: `Do you know where Dunedin is?','' Sandra Scoles responded.

''I travel frequently to Australia and it's just another knockback for Dunedin.''

Reader Jeff Dillon said it was ''very disappointing to see the way that airline services have been downgraded in recent years, both in terms of domestic links and our options for more than one link into Australia''.

''If we have to get back to our pioneering roots by setting up our own dedicated airline, then let's do it.''

Those views were countered by a small number opposing the idea, including Gavin Dann's comment: ''Shouldn't this article have been shelved until April 1 next year?''.

Mr Doherty said he had never been scared to speak out, and was not deterred by comments from Dunedin International Airport Ltd chairman Stuart McLauchlan the proposal had made Dunedin a ''laughing stock''.

Mr Doherty also said this week he was keen to see whether any ''key players'' might pick up on parts of the idea that needed someone with expertise.

But none in the business or local government milieu - those whom Mr Doherty called on to develop the idea - were keen to put up their hand.

Otago Regional Council chairman Stephen Woodhead responded he would not recommend to his council it get involved in any way; it was not the role of a local authority to lead the way on such an issue.

Mayor Dave Cull also showed limited interest in an idea he said could ''risk millions of ratepayer dollars''.

Mr McLauchlan noted the static economic environment.

''If the city was growing, we wouldn't be having this discussion.''

Those comments are backed up by recent census data.

That showed Dunedin was poorer than New Zealand's other major centres, and its labour force was shrinking.

The same Statistics New Zealand figures showed growth in the Queenstown Lakes district - the richest part of Otago - had pushed Otago's population beyond 200,000 for the first time.

When contacted this week, Animation Research Ltd chief executive Ian Taylor was in traffic on the way to Auckland airport to make the last direct flight to Dunedin at 3.30pm, having left a conference early to do so.

He said Queenstown was getting more flights, as Dunedin's were cut. Queenstown businesses were doing well and helping attract people to the area.

''What are we doing?'' he asked.

But he also questioned whether Air New Zealand could ''do better''.

He said the Government-owned business had a responsibility to connect the regions.

''That's why we own the thing.''

Dunedin-based GPS mapping company TracMap managing director Colin Brown said airlines - like other businesses -had to run a commercial operation.

''One of the costs to us of choosing to do business in Dunedin is that we know that when we travel it's going to cost us more time and more money than if we were based in Christchurch or Auckland.''

It was important to continue to agitate for more flights, but ''I have to recognise that we are never going [to match] Christchurch or Auckland''.

He also said he regularly encountered the same issues in the United States when travelling outside the main centres - a comment that has been made more than once this week.

The man who has already run a version of Fred Doherty's plan - former Kiwi Air boss Ewan Wilson - had his thoughts on some comments that have arisen.

Mr McLauchlan said people did not appreciate the cost of setting up an airline, ''the compliance cost to apply for a licence and to get through the regulatory issues''.

Mr Wilson said ''inherently, people will try to see this as an opportunity to make it as complicated as possible - they will talk about getting their own aeroplane, pilots, air operating certificates, and before you know it they will be talking about appointing their own cabin crew.

''That will not work.

''What would work is a virtual airline and I could put them in touch with two well-established, well-respected existing operators based in Australia that have the aircraft, crew, maintenance, insurance, operating certificate and available capacity now.''

Mr Wilson said he would be prepared to assist in a planning day, with advice and expertise.

But any such event appears unlikely, unless somebody steps forward to take the joystick of Otago Air.

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