The future of scheduled flights to and from Kaitaia is looking brighter thanks to a bigger aircraft and lower fares boosting the once beleaguered service - and a subsidy from a ratepayer-owned company.
The subsidy from Far North Holdings is paid on the condition Barrier Air keeps flying at least until the end of February.
Even if Barrier Air does pull out - which had been a distinct possibility as recently as last month - a rival airline which missed out on the Kaitaia-Auckland route earlier this year, Tauranga-based Sunair, is still keen to have a go.
Barrier Air chief executive Michael Foster said the future of the service was looking "a lot brighter".
Since November 1 the company had been using a Cessna Caravan, a single-engine turboprop bought in Alaska for the Kaitaia route. It could take up to 12 passengers but cost about the same to run as the eight-seat, twin-engined Piper Chieftain used previously.
Passenger numbers would be further boosted next month once the company set up its own fuel supply in Kaitaia. Currently Barrier Air can fill only 10 seats on the flight from Auckland because of the weight of fuel it has to carry for the return trip.
Once the Caravan can refuel in Kaitaia it will be able to take 12 each way.
A new fare structure - with prices ranging from $99 if booked ahead up to the full $199 - had attracted new passengers with an eye for a good deal, while daylight saving had boosted numbers on the early flights.
Barrier Air had also done a deal with Far North Holdings, which was providing financial assistance until the end of December if required. In return the company had guaranteed to keep flying at least until end of February, Mr Foster said.
The subsidy was paid out only if the route made a loss. A top-up was needed in October; the route could break even this month and the subsidy was unlikely to be paid out in December when three bottom-line-boosting charters to Kaitaia, each with about 50 passengers, had been booked already.
Far North Holdings' help had given the company the confidence to continue, Mr Foster said.
"With combination of a revised schedule and a bigger plane things are looking a lot better. Especially now we have the Caravan on the run we can see there's light at the end of the tunnel."
The current schedule, with two return flights each weekday with an extra one-way on Monday and Friday, would continue through summer. Some flights could be dropped in winter.
Mr Foster said the company had been overly optimistic about passenger numbers when it took over from Air NZ. It was now carrying 23-25 a day and numbers were slowly increasing. It had been a steep learning curve, he said.
Meanwhile, Tauranga-based Sunair Aviation - one of four airlines that put their hands up to fill the void left by Air NZ's withdrawal - is still keen to take on the route if Barrier Air pulls out.
Owner Dan Power said his company came second when Far North Holdings was assessing airlines for preferred operator status on the Kaitaia route.
He predicted passengers numbers would drop by half once Air NZ pulled out and the figures so far had borne that out. Despite that, he was convinced Sunair could operate the route in a financially sustainable way.
Sunair had proposed two flights a day using a Piper Chieftain or a Piper Aztec with space for nine and five passengers, respectively.
"We believe we can do it better in a more economic way," Mr Power said.
Sunair had operated scheduled services for 20 years and could put that experience to use in Northland. It currently flies between Tauranga, Hamilton, Rotorua, Gisborne and Napier.
Northlanders could be assured they would still have a scheduled air service from Kaitaia if Barrier Air pulled out, he said.
Mr Power said he was surprised Far North Holdings was paying a subsidy to Barrier Air to help make the route viable.