Two aviation companies are now vying for the right to fly from Kaitaia after Air New Zealand's shock decision to quit the Far North town.
The national carrier announced last week it would axe its Kaitaia flights as of April next year, a decision decried by business, farming, health and political leaders.
Tauranga company Sunair Aviation was the first to throw a lifeline to stranded Far North air travellers but a second, as yet unnamed company is also keen to take Air New Zealand's place.
Far North Holdings chief executive Andy Nock said the council-owned company was evaluating two proposals for a Kaitaia air service to make sure the town got the best flights possible in terms of capacity and departure times. The offers were confidential for now.
The upside of Air New Zealand's withdrawal was that Kaitaia could end up with a better service for business travellers with earlier departures and later returns, Mr Nock said.
Sunair, which specialises in routes between provincial towns not flown by the national carrier, was the first to contact the Far North District Council and Far North Holdings. Its aircraft - mainly twin-engined, six-seater Piper Aztecs - are even smaller than the 19-seater Beechcraft 1900Ds Air New Zealand says are too small to be economic, but the firm believes its lower overheads will make the route viable.
Describing itself as "the big little airline", Sunair has 10 twin-engined aircraft serving eight regional towns and is owned by Tauranga couple Dan and Bev Power.
Mrs Power said Sunair would offer two flights a day timed to allow a full business day in the destination city. The number of flights could be increased if there was sufficient demand.
It was too early to give an indication of cost but she hoped they would be similar to current Air New Zealand fares.
The company had already spoken with Mayor John Carter and Mr Nock. Both were enthusiastic and supportive, she said.
The level of airport fees charged, and choosing the right size aircraft, were crucial to making the service viable. The firm was considering bringing in 12-seater Cessna Caravans.
Mrs Power said there was a social obligation to ensure Kaitaia continued to have air transport but but it also had to work financially.
"We see this as a business opportunity. We think we can make it work, we have less costs, less overheads than Air New Zealand."
One of the complaints about the current service is the departure time, with some Kaitaia business people saying they have to drive to Kerikeri to catch an early flight and get a full day in Auckland.
Mrs Power said the departure time had yet to be set but would have to fit in with other flights.
"Each region wants the early departure. We'll take that on board and try to make it work as best we can."
It is not the company's first attempt at setting up an air service in Northland. In 2007 Sunair tried to start up a Whangarei-Auckland service in alliance with Whangarei air training school Quantum Aviation. It folded a few months later because a government policy change meant Quantum's students were no longer eligible for student allowances or loans, and because the company struggled to compete head-to-head with Air New Zealand.
The 25-year-old company currently flies from Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua, Napier, Gisborne, Whitianga, Great Barrier and Auckland. It has also offered to replace Air New Zealand's Whakatane flights.
Mr Carter said the council would do everything it could to retain daily flights from Kaitaia, which were an important part of the Far North's transport infrastructure and helped keep Te Hiku on the tourist map.
Northland MP Mike Sabin said he was heartened to hear of Sunair's plans following Air New Zealand's shock announcement. He had spoken with the company's chief executive, who told him Air New Zealand would work with the replacement airline and airport operators to ensure a smooth transition.
- An aviation insider describes Sunair as "a quiet achiever" which has survived 25 years in a tough industry by "keeping out of the way of the big boys" and avoiding major incidents. However, if Sunair were to take on the Kaitaia route it would probably need a larger aircraft such as the 12-seater Cessna Caravan. Other third-level airlines being discussed in aviation circles as possible replacements for Air New Zealand on the Kaitaia, Whakatane or Westport routes include Paihia-based Salt Air, Whakatane-based East Bay Aviation, Great Barrier Airlines, Air Chathams, Fly My Sky, Wellington's Sounds Air and Auckland corporate flight specialist Inflite Charters. Salt Air operated daily flights between Kerikeri and Auckland's North Shore from 2008-12.