Reports that Air New Zealand have been charging Kiwis twice as much for domestic flights out of Auckland as they charge Australians will come as no surprise to those in the provinces who are sadly all too familiar with the priority accorded by our supposedly "national carrier" to chasing the dollar rather than meeting its "national" responsibilities.
There was a time when Whakatane and other regional centres like Kaitaia had several flights a day to and from Auckland. But about three years ago, those flights ended, and it seems Kapiti is the latest sacrificial lamb. It wasn't that they had not been well patronised; the 20-seater planes were almost always full, so the service easily paid its way.
The problem was that filling a 20-seater was not as profitable as filling a 50-seater, and there was not enough demand to warrant using the larger plane. So the service was cancelled, leaving Whakatane and other similarly placed rural towns deprived of an essential service.
In the case of Whakatane, a small private operator, Air Chathams, stepped in and, within its limitations, has made a creditable job of running the replacement service. But, far from welcoming this, Air NZ showed no willingness to co-operate with the new provider so as to minimise the loss to its former customers.
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Those customers are left with a number of irritations. There is, for example, no joint booking, so that to travel from Whakatane to Wellington, you must book first a flight to Auckland with Air Chathams, then book with Air NZ for the flight from Auckland to Wellington.
There has been little attempt (from Air NZ, at least) to co-ordinate timetables to ensure connecting flights are scheduled appropriately. And, for passengers who have joined Air NZ's Koru Club, someone returning from Wellington and arriving in Auckland (and perhaps having to wait an hour or two for the Air Chathams flight to Whakatane) will find access to the Koru Lounge barred because the passenger does not have a ticket for an onward Air NZ flight.
All this is, sadly, evidence of Air NZ's cavalier attitude to claiming the privilege of being regarded as our "national" carrier. How and why did this sad state of affairs arise?
Air NZ is, of course, effectively owned by the Government. The annual profit returned to its principal shareholder was no doubt of great value to a Government obsessed with showing its financial accounts in a good light. It was not enough that Air NZ show a profit, it had to be humongous, so that it earned plaudits from the Minister of Finance and therefore bonuses for the senior executives.
Since a full 20-seater plane was not as profitable as a 50-seater, the Whakatane service (however valuable to Air NZ's customers), and others like it, had to go. Profits put ahead of customers' interests.
The consequences of these decisions are far-reaching. A town like Whakatane becomes a less attractive place in which to live and work in the absence of a fully functioning air travel service. As Shane Jones, the minister overseeing the new Provincial Growth Fund, has said, the withdrawal of services from regional centres runs counter to the policy direction the new Government wishes to take. If matters remain as they are, the handicap represented by the Air NZ withdrawal of services will remain and hamper the regions in their drive to build their local economies.
Fortunately, Jones can, as the representative of Air NZ's principal shareholder, make it clear a bumper profit is not the only criterion of success. He need not tell them how to run the company but can advise them that Government expectations have changed and that they need to pay more attention to other goals, and particularly to ensuring our "national" carrier is national at home as well as abroad, so that parts of the country are not marooned.