Jetstar's inglorious launch in New Zealand provides a cautionary tale of just how tightly airlines have stretched themselves in their efforts to remain profitable in these difficult times.
The huge capital cost of aircraft means airlines can't afford to have them sitting on the tarmac so turnaround times are getting tighter and tighter and the margin for error less and less.
If, like Jetstar, you've only got two aircraft (soon to become three) to operate your entire New Zealand schedule it only needs one plane to have mechanical problems or one airport to be closed (as Queenstown has been) or one flight to depart late as a result of waiting for passengers and the difficulties are going to multiply.
Hence, no doubt, Jetstar's tough line with passengers who arrive marginally late - or, as some passengers insist, just in time - instead of the flexibility they're used to from the likes of Air NZ.
I've only flown Jetstar once myself, and that was in Australia where they've obviously got more resources, and the service was fine.
But I have had similar troubles with Jetstar parent Qantas on domestic flights both here and in Australia. In one case, which illustrates the problem clearly, our Auckland-Queenstown flight was delayed because of some mechanical hiccup which obviously couldn't easily be fixed. In the end Qantas had to cancel a flight to Christchurch, rebooking its passengers on Air NZ, so we could take the plane to Queenstown.
The problem for Jetstar is that no matter how understandable its difficulties may be, the end result is a bunch of dissatisfied customers, and probably lost bookings.
Jetstar's own figures show that in its first six days only 20 per cent of flights ran within 20 minutes of the scheduled time which isn't a great start (though it has improved markedly since).
Rival budget airline Pacific Blue happily took the opportunity to point out that in the first five months of the year it was within 15 minutes of the schedule 92 per cent of the time.
Air NZ cheerfully added that it generally keeps within 10 minutes of the schedule 90 per cent of the time.
That little burst of transparency prompts the thought that it would be nice if reliability statistics were always available to help us decide who to fly with. Happily it seems the Government is thinking about requiring airports to provide those figures. Let's hope the decision is favourable.
More than ever airlines will have to tread a careful line between getting a return on the capital invested in their planes and providing a reliable operation, offering competitive prices and giving the standard of service the public expects.
- Jim Eagles
Pictured above: Jetstar experienced a rough first week. Photo / Simon Baker