By John Cousins and Graham Skellern
A new daily direct air service between Tauranga and Christchurch will be launched next December.
The announcement by Air New Zealand has been welcomed by city civic and business leaders who were frustrated when Origin Pacific was forced to end its direct Christchurch link four months ago in the wake of airline finance problems.
Air New Zealand was boosting its regional services by the purchase of three additional Bombardier Q300 aircraft, allowing a much earlier than planned introduction of a new direct service between Tauranga and the South Island.
Current link services to the South Island are routed through Wellington and Auckland, frustrating business people who sometimes have to overnight in Christchurch.
The general manager of Air New Zealand subsidiary Air Nelson, John Hamilton, said it would be an off-peak service because they saw the leisure market as offering the most potential.
While it may take some time for the market to build up, he was confident it would become a viable service.
"Putting a 50-seater aircraft on to a new service is quite a bit jump."
However, experience with the Napier-Christchurch service had shown it was the domestic leisure market of people travelling for family and holiday reasons that was the biggest part of the market. The new service would pick up connecting flights to Dunedin, Queenstown and Invercargill to reduce the number of sectors that Tauranga people had to fly.
Tauranga Mayor Stuart Crosby said the announcement was the result of years of negotiations and research to convince the airline there was a market for the service.
"What I kept on impressing on Air New Zealand was Tauranga's growth."
Trinity Wharf has opened and hopefully there would be an announcement in the New Year on the planned new Novotel Hotel in Durham St, he said.
Novotel would greatly expand the conference market and together with sports events, the market was growing too quickly to have people dribbling in on 19-seater aircraft.
"It is another signal of confidence in Tauranga."
Adrienne von Tunzelmann, immediate past president of the Tauranga Chamber of Commerce, said the new South Island flights will make a big difference for local business people.
"It's a pain that we have to wait a year but it's reassuring to know that it's going to happen," she said.
"At least Air New Zealand is responding to demand - and I guess they have their own schedules to sort out first.
Capacity out of Tauranga is a major issue."
Ms von Tunzelmann said at present it was very difficult to get a seat at short notice and fly Tauranga to Wellington.
"That's the way business people operate and if they do get a seat they have to pay absolute top dollar - a return flight to Wellington is $830."
She said the direct flight to Christchurch will take the pressure off the Tauranga to Wellington and Tauranga to Auckland routes.