Westport seeks new airline

Westport leaders were today scrambling to find an alternative air service after Air New Zealand announced it was canning its Westport flights altogether.

Buller Mayor Garry Howard said it was a "body blow" for the district, which was already struggling to make economic headway.

The loss of the air service would make it even harder to attract the businesses and skills Buller desperately needed, Mr Howard said.

"It seems to me, with central government and regional development, it lacks credibility. I listened to (Transport Minister) Simon Bridges and he had little regard for what it means for an area like Westport," he said.

Mr Howard said he was "absolutely determined" to find an alternative provider for Westport.

An approach to Greymouth-based Air West Coast or someone like Blenheim-based Sounds Air were clear possibilities and needed to happen "as soon as possible".

The council's management committee was to discuss the next move today.

Mr Howard said the Air NZ flight out of Westport typically carried about 12 passengers. In his experience, half were business related travellers and the rest local domestic passengers; tourism was not really a factor.

He became aware some time ago that the life of the aircraft flying into Westport was limited, although Air New Zealand had indicated that would be more than two years away.

As a result, the announcement yesterday came as a shock, Mr Howard said.

Air NZ had given an undertaking to share information as it still wanted a feeder service from Westport into its national network.

Tagging Westport on to existing Hokitika-based services had not been canvassed although he said he understood Air NZ was reluctant due to the costs each time an aircraft had to land and take-off.

"Every seat is $26 they've just lost to put someone on that plane."

Former Buller mayor of 21 years, Pat O'Dea, described the decision as a typical example of government agencies "kicking the s..t out of the regions".

It demonstrated lack of vision and leadership from the Government and Air NZ around the regions.

"The government has no plans and no real direction ... it's time they thought about the rest of New Zealand," Mr O'Dea said.

West Coast-Tasman MP, Damien O'Connor described the decision as a "kick in the guts".

Mr O'Connor was involved in getting Air Nelson to return to Westport in the 1980s and so to have Air NZ pull the plug was "hugely disappointing".

"It's a savage blow to a community already squeezed by job losses at Solid Energy and the proposed closure of the Holcim cement works."

West Coast Federated Farmers provincial president Katie Milne labelled the cut as another step in the "quiet deterioration" of the regions.

"Once they are gone it's just so difficult to turn around and get these provincial services back again," Miss Milne said.

While the Coast had the Hokitika service this was "often disrupted" by bad weather. "Even at the best of times it's the long way round to get to Wellington," Miss Milne said. Air New Zealand chief executive Christopher Luxon said the fleet of 19-seater aircraft used on its regional routes had been losing more than $1 million a month.

It had been "carrying these losses" while working "with many regional stakeholders" to improve service viability.

"Despite best efforts, some routes are simply not sustainable," Mr Luxon said.

By Brendon McMahon of the Westport News

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