Here’s a project for the New Zealand government to support – before the Chinese arrive.
Air Rarotonga has just added a second Saab 340B to its fleet and is considering flights to the northern Cooks. However, the basic crushed coral runways at Manihiki, Penrhyn and possibly Pukapuka need upgrading.
Surely Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters, with his enthusiasm for the Pacific, will be eager to back the project – wouldn’t he?
Air Rarotonga, in business since 1978, says the second Saab will add capacity initially to the Rarotonga-Aitutaki route with the potential for regional charter flights to Tahiti and Niue. The new aircraft has been the catalyst for Air Rarotonga entering discussions with government about upgrading those runways.
Saab flights into the Northern Group would substantially reduce the cost of travel for local people on the back of specialised small-scale tourism to the North, says Air Rarotonga chief executive Ewan Smith.
By operating a larger aircraft, the airline could carry almost a full load up there, so if local needs could be supplemented with a little bit of tourism it means 20 to 25 passengers could be carried on each flight – and prices could be reduced significantly.
Smith says there is a lot of commentary about the cost of flying to the Cooks’ outer reaches, but it is 1300 kilometres to coral runways that can accommodate small aircraft only. The consequences of that is the airline is limited in the payloads, for example a 15-seat Bandeirante can carry only seven or eight passengers. That makes it expensive along with logistical expenses such as shipping fuel to those remote islands.
If a commercial solution could be found to open-up air access to the Northern Group without relying on taxpayer subsidies, then it will be a great achievement, Smith says. The new aircraft require a paved runway and the airline has made a commitment to the government that if those runways are upgraded then it will offer a weekly scheduled service to the north.
Engineers have visited the region and will produce upgrade proposals. If there is a decision to proceed, final upgrade plans would need to go out for tender.