Outgoing Rotorua Airport chief executive Alastair Rhodes says important lessons must be learned from the past, but it's not too late to create a fantastic airport for the region's future. Senior reporter Matthew Martin spoke to him about the future of the city's multimillion-dollar asset.

Hindsight is great but foresight better

Just days before he made the announcement he was moving on, Rotorua Airport chief executive Alastair Rhodes spoke frankly to the Rotorua Daily Post about the challenges the airport's faced.

He said poor commercial decisions made previously based on poor advice saw the Rotorua District Council pay more than $9 million to Air New Zealand to keep the transtasman service running and he really appreciated the support he had had from the current council to help make the difficult decision to cancel flights to Sydney.

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Mistakes were made, but hindsight was one thing and there were opportunities for the airport to return to its glory days of the early to mid-2000s.

However, Rhodes was a good choice to take up the job in March of 2013, having started work with Freedom Air (a subsidiary of Air New Zealand) as a finance manager - he knew the ins and outs of the fickle transtasman route.

When Rhodes took the job, he knew the writing was likely on the wall, not only for the transtasman route, but also the recent changes to regional air travel that have seen Whakatane and Taupo lose regional flight services.

He said one of the problems with the transtasman service was a lack of institutional knowledge at the council when it came to airports and the transtasman market.

"It was all very well to get consultants in. However, unless they were actively involved in Tasman aviation, it would have been difficult to provide the council with the right information to make the right decisions, especially when externally it looked like Hamilton and even Palmerston North had sustainable and growing Tasman services.

"I know those lessons have been learned and the current council has made the very difficult decision after spending more than $9 million to keep it here.

"Stopping funding these flights was a sound commercial decision. Whereas continuing to fund them would have been political, not commercial.

"We can't go back and reverse those decisions, but we are in a good position for the future."

Rhodes said the key to the airport's future was better domestic links, especially between the North and South islands for international tourists and working with Whakatane and Taupo to provide air links for their passengers who would lose Air NZ's services next year.

"This Air New Zealand decision is hard on those places. However, with their fleet changes, it was always going to happen. With four airports in this region, it was a matter of when, not if.

"These airports were created 50 years ago and roading improvements have meant much faster travel times by road. That's why we need to think more regionally and I'm picking there may even be more consolidation in the future.

"If we can own this issue regionally rather than individually it will be better for everyone rather than everyone focusing on their own patch.

"Our job is to attract those people who used to travel out of Whakatane and Taupo and get them flying out of Rotorua by illustrating the benefits that are to be had flying out of Rotorua."

Rhodes said with the decision to fly larger aircraft in and out of the city from Auckland, meaning a 100 per cent increase in capacity, it was important to work regionally with the city's neighbours.

Airport officials want to know what the public thinks will be the best use of the soon-to-be empty international section of the airport.
Airport officials want to know what the public thinks will be the best use of the soon-to-be empty international section of the airport.

Opportunities

When Rotorua loses its flights to Sydney in April, he said there would be opportunities for commercial development in and around the airport.

"We've got a lot of land around the airport with state highway access. What we want from the council and New Zealand Transport Agency [NZTA] is a roundabout that can access the airport and Eastgate.

"We have a couple of large parties who want to develop some of that land.

"That's where most airports actually make their money. So we need that access and have to work with the NZTA, the council and the community to allow this to happen.

"The problem is we just don't know what's happening there with the Eastern Arterial project being on the books for 40-plus years.

"If this isn't done soon these people will just forget the whole thing and it will be an opportunity lost.

"Like with the Victoria St Arterial decision, the Eastern Arterial needs to be sorted out.

"Is it going to happen? Or will they push it back another 10 years? There has to be certainly because it is strangling opportunities out on this side of town.

"There's iwi land that needs to be developed too and those people need as much certainty as we do.

"What's unacceptable is to continue to tell people they don't know what they want to do and to keep putting this decision off."

He said with land running alongside Te Ngae Rd there was another 30ha close to the lake edge that could be developed.

The future

Rhodes is focusing on three ideas for the future - discussions with larger airports and their links to Rotorua, commercial development and attracting back general aviation activities.

"I've been in discussions with Christchurch and Queenstown and their regional tourism organisations about recapturing the loss of the north-south, south-north traffic.

"At the moment 900,000 international tourists come to Rotorua each year and 300,000 of those go to the South Island.

"We want more of them to fly out of Rotorua, rather than driving back to Auckland and flying down from there.

"At the moment, we get about 40 passengers a day. We want this to be more than 100 so we can talk to Air New Zealand about getting a jet service from here to Queenstown."

He said with the recent focus on the transtasman service Rotorua has lost about 80 per cent of its former general aviation activity such as aero clubs and sky diving.

"The view at the time was you could not combine general aviation with international, so we lost it," Rhodes said.

"There is still some angst out there about that, but there is the chance to get some of it back, it's a matter of speaking to people, getting them on side and back here because it's important for regional airports. It can't be all about profit-making, this is a public entity, after all."

Space

When the transtasman service ends in April there is the question of what to do with all of the space it will leave in the terminal building.

Rhodes said with about 1000sqm of space in the building currently used for the international service there were opportunities for things such as an international flight training school or other commercial operations.

"We actually want to know what people think could go into this space," he said..
"Another thing we'd like to see is a Koru Lounge. It's one of the biggest complaints at Rotorua Airport.

"We'd give the space to Air New Zealand at no cost, but that's not our decision to make.
"With more commercial flights coming in the future this could be a possibility."