China Southern Airlines is taking an active interest in an ambitious proposal for Auckland International Airport to become a prime Asia-Pacific regional hub.
China Southern's chief operating officer Zhang Zifang spoke enthusiastically about Auckland's potential to be a major aviation hub during a dinner to mark the inaugural flight of the airline's carbon-fibre Boeing 787 Dreamliner on its Guangzhou-Auckland route.
Auckland Airport chief executive Adrian Littlewood says the prospect was later discussed during talks with China Southern. "They have talked about the South American opportunity - they have been staring at it," says Littlewood. "The interest in that opportunity remains strong. It is obviously something we as a company involved in tourism, are very keen to see happen."
Nothing concrete is on the agenda yet. The Chinese airline will increase its services to Auckland from daily to 10 times a week from December 4. It's been a rapid expansion and one mirrored elsewhere in the world as China Southern increasingly turns its attention to the international aviation market as the snowballing use of high-speed rail in China puts pressure on its domestic aviation market.
It is only a matter of time before the airline seeks to expand rapidly into the Latin American market. Air New Zealand is also likely to push into the LatAm market over time through an alliance with another player.
Littlewood applauds Tourism NZ for taking steps to establish a South American base. "That is fantastic because you have to get people on the ground building up relationships and getting that going."
NZ's developing education market in Latin America is also a plus. "Every student studying in education here generates something like 2.5 additional trips to New Zealand. That might be friends and family coming to visit or attending graduation. So you get an exponential benefit from export education.
"That is incredibility important for our collective future thinking about what is good for the country."
Auckland Airport has already designed a $2.4 billion "airport of the future" (pictured) that includes a sweeping crescent-shaped domestic and international terminal on one site. Its 30-year vision entails an integrated terminal, two runway systems, and a modal transport system which can deliver an efficient airport for airlines and better experience for travellers.
"If we have a highly efficient airport that has a great transport experience and is reasonably priced for passengers, it might just influence an airline's decision whether they fly here or not," says Littlewood.
Asked if New Zealand could take steps to make the Asia-Pacific hub a reality sooner, he references China. "If you think about when we got approved destination status in 1999, it took us as an industry a long time to turn around and spot that opportunity and take advantage of that lead we had against the rest of the world.
"Just imagine if we could have done what we have done in the industry in the past three or four years in one or two years, and let's apply that model to other countries."