If you'll excuse the hoary pun, things are taking off at Whanganui Airport.

Not so much because Air New Zealand is flying 50-seater planes through our regional hub, but rather that other things are happening or are about to happen at the airport, all aimed at underpinning the economic well-being of the facility.

Allan MacGibbon, airport manager, tracks passengers going through the airport gates to board Air NZ flights.

He said allowing for a 65-70 per cent loading on the 50-seater Q300 planes, which were flying up and back three times a day, about 60,000 people were using the service each year.


But that scenario will change in March next year when the airline reverts to two daily flights - two out and two back.

"It doesn't help because effectively it means the flights will only service the Whanganui market - those flying out of the city - rather than the Aucklanders wanting to come here for a day's business. And I'm alarmed with that call because it changes the dynamics at our airport dramatically."

Mr MacGibbon said at the moment the 10am flight from Auckland was showing good passenger loadings and most of them were "suits" (business people) but the pending change would affect that.

He said that was the problem the airline had with the Whanganui to Wellington service because it was only good for those flying from here to Wellington with a flight leaving in the morning and returning that night.

But the other issue for the Whanganui operation was the ongoing leakage of potential customers who use Palmerston North, an airport serviced by more planes and flying to more destinations.

"We're relying on these (Whanganui) flights for our income because Air NZ is our biggest customer by far in terms of landing fees.

"We work as well as we can with them to make sure they get everything they need here. And they appear to be more than happy with what we're doing," Mr MacGibbon said.

He said Air NZ's schedule changes reflected the competition it was responding to in other parts of the domestic market from the likes of Jetstar: "It's just that Whanganui's at the bottom of the list."


But he said there were some obvious positives happening at Whanganui's airport, and one of those was the pilot training school that was to set up here before the end of the year.

"The sky's the limit really in how big that becomes. It only depends on how much money you want to pour into it," Mr MacGibbon said.

The school gets government funding for 14 New Zealand student pilots. The rest will be privately funded and most of those are from overseas. But it could be that more than 40 students are enrolled at any one time. "But there's potential to grow if they're looking at the international market."

So while the national carrier is the biggest customer, it's not the only one. The airport is a busy place with agricultural planes, the aero club, Air Wanganui and more recently the RNZAF contributing the income.

"The Air Force is using its Texan trainer aircraft for a lot of touch-and-go landings. And we've had indications from the Air Force they'll be using our airfield a lot more," he said.

"They need to get their pilots into different places as they learned to fly in different environments. The King Airs fly here and the NH90s and Agusta 109 helicopters. It's very convenient for them because we're only 10 minutes away from Ohakea.

"They pay the same for a touch-and-go as they would if they landed. But if they do 10 touch-and-goes, we'll only charge them as if it was one landing. That's the same as we charge others."

For the airport it represented revenue but Mr MacGibbon said Whanganui's charges were in the lower quartile.

"We're between a rock and a hard place. We don't want to raise charges to drive people away but equally the ratepayers shouldn't be subsidising someone's flying, so it's about striking a balance."

Whanganui Airport is a busy regional airport and on a typical day racks up between 30 to 50 movements. That includes Air NZ, agricultural aircraft, the air ambulance and aero club flights.

It's a 50/50 partnership between the city and the Crown, one of six left in the country working under that arrangement.

While he's promoting the airport, Mr MacGibbon has been a prime mover behind the idea of an aviation network servicing the country. "We've got a roading network which everyone accepts as vital but for some unknown reason we haven't done the same for the aviation industry. But we're working to get this changed.

"Whether you're a small or large airport, it essentially doesn't change what you are. It depends on the ownership model and in our case we've had outstanding support from the district council. Look at the medical flights going from here. Without Air Wanganui's service there are a lot of people who wouldn't be alive today."

He said airports were often taken for granted but there was a considerable financial commitment made to the operation of the facility. Next year, for example, they would spend $250,000 on a protective sealing coat over the runway.

"Whether we're going to be a major scheduled passenger airport into the future, I don't know. We're so close to Palmerston North. But in terms of driving the local economy, our airport is absolutely vital.

"And I think we're going to see more third-level carriers emerge as well. Companies like Air Chathams and Sounds Air might start getting involved again in smaller centres.

"But without that passenger link to Auckland especially I think this would be a different place. Whether we can sustain it into the future and whether we've got a carrier committed to providing the service is another thing. But we've proved that we can support that network.

"The numbers through here are pretty good and it's convenient but I'm just a bit concerned that their plans do not include a service that suits people flying from Auckland to Whanganui.

"That said, we value Air NZ and try and provide the best damn service to them that we can," Mr MacGibbon said.