Invercargill must embrace flights

Air New Zealand Airbus A320 at the Invercargill airport. Photo: Allied Press files
Air New Zealand Airbus A320 at the Invercargill airport. Photo: Allied Press files
For the first time, direct flights are to connect our southernmost city with Auckland. The Air New Zealand service will operate five days a week departing Invercargill at 6am before returning from Auckland about 7.30pm.

But at this stage the new service is just a trial - commencing in the second half of 2019. Whether it becomes permanent, or even expanded, will depend on how well patronised it is.

The trial is not an act of charity. Many still see Air New Zealand as the ``national carrier'', the implication being it is a publicly funded service tasked with connecting the country's various far-flung communities.

It is not. While the taxpayer owns a touch more than half of the company it is a commercial operation tasked with making profits.

Like all successful commercial operations, it has the stomach to cut services which don't add up - as several regional towns can attest to.

Invercargill can certainly handle the service's aircraft - Airbus A-320 jets. The airport's 2200m long runway is considerably longer than Queenstown's and Dunedin's, both of which host the same aircraft many times a day.

The airport itself is just a five-minute drive from the city centre, making it well placed for increased passenger numbers.

But can Invercargill ensure the new service turns a profit? On its own, probably not.

The city is planning significant urban investment, hosts a popular tertiary education provider, has plentiful jobs, affordable housing and is an easy two-and-a-half hour drive to Queenstown - there
is no doubt it is well placed
to capitalise on the country's newfound love of its regions.

But its current population of not much more than 50,000 is surely too light to sustain the new flights.

There are a further 50,000 people living elsewhere in Southland, but it is likely that many of them have become
used to using Queenstown or Dunedin airports, or decided flying to Auckland is just too difficult.

Until now that journey has meant one of two options: either drive to the aforementioned airports and take direct flights from them; or take the Invercargill to Auckland flights which ``bounce'' at Christchurch.

In an age of immediacy, both options are frustratingly time consuming.

The new flights will end that frustration and Air New Zealand is banking on Southerners rewarding the airline by changing their current habits and increasing their patronage. Southland's tourism industry - including the sleeping giant that is Rakiura/Stewart Island - will also provide numbers. While Southland is not the country's hottest tourism ticket, it does have sought-after attractions and, perhaps more importantly, has the promise of the untouched and uncrowded - something the country's more famous destinations no longer offer.

If Southland is on the cusp of a tourism boom, the improved access provided by the new service can only help. Direct Auckland flights give tourists the chance to begin or end their New Zealand adventure at the bottom of the country, rather than in Dunedin or Queenstown.

Though clever marketing will play a role, whether tourists take up this option is largely out of locals' control.

What can be controlled by locals is how enthusiastically they embrace the new flights.

They should do so with vigour. The service will require no infrastructure investment, will offer a convenient link to the country's largest port and market, bring significant time savings and could open the region to increased tourism.

In this elongated country, with neither a nationwide motorway network nor high-speed rail, the South is highly dependent on air travel.

It is no small risk Air New Zealand is taking investing in this trial. It is hoping Southerners will embrace the service.

If they do, and ensure a decent return on the airline's investment, the region can only benefit.



As more and more people from overseas flooding in to new Zealand to live there needs to be an airport/ here/