What’s behind the recent NZ air travel turmoil – and why are there so few alternatives?

A perfect storm of problems saw domestic flights canceled left, right and middle this week. But with costs and climate change being a big concern, what other options do customers have for getting to where they need to go?

At one point, Shreyas Ramasubramanian had 10 tabs turned on on his laptop, toggling between them to find the best option. The cloud systems engineer was in Auckland this past weekend, and was scheduled to return to Wellington on Sunday night when his flight with Jetstar was canceled. After a long wait to contact a representative, Jetstar offered him a refund or a replacement flight. He took the refund, and decided to look for an alternative vehicle.

Direct Air New Zealand or Jetstar flights to Wellington were unavailable for three days, seats being taken by hundreds of other customers scrambling to replace canceled flights. Flying to Paraparaumu or Palmerston North then taking the train to Wellington is still more expensive. Flying to Nelson then Wellington is a possibility, but it will be necessary to sleep at the airport. He wanted to get to Wellington before Tuesday morning, and despite being entertained by the “funny combinations” of transportation options he imagined on his screen, all but one of them cost more than the original. he paid for his ticket to Jetstar. He booked an Intercity bus.

Weather, Lack of staff associated with Covid, and “operational issues” are the cause more than a dozen flights between major centers to cancel this week. While this is certainly good news for Stuff’s “Travel Problems”, This begs the broader question: why are airline services so weak today, and why are there so few alternatives?

The pandemic, of course, is a big part of why the airline industry is so high in the air today, said Thanh Ngo, a senior lecturer at Massey’s school of aviation. “The frequency of flights to and from New Zealand will drop by 85% between 2019 and 2021,” he said. “The war in Ukraine and the high cost of fuel are also raising industry prices.”

Air New Zealand and Qantas planes are together on the runway
When flights are canceled, it will be clear how much New Zealand’s interregional transportation depends on planes (Photo: James D. Morgan/Getty Images)

The pattern of canceled flights and costs and nuisances is not limited to Aotearoa; AustraliaThe US at Germany everyone encounters similar problems. The reasons are the same: the airline industry has made fast international travel affordable for many by operating with extreme efficiency and small margins. The pandemic changed staffing calculations that made this efficiency possible.

In Aotearoa, this is a classic example of supply and demand. “Covid’s policy seems to be stable now, so people want to travel,” Ngo said. But the airlines did not have the capacity they had pre-pandemic; Jetstar has cut services to the region and Air New Zealand is desperate trying to hire more staff. “Flight frequencies need to increase for New Zealand’s aviation industry to recover – there is a surplus of consumers who want to travel, but can’t.”

While some of the capacity issues are products of the pandemic economic disruption, the direct impact of the current cancellations is a product of both the bad weather and the Covid wave hitting the country. While some businesses may still run with limited employees, airlines ’safety regulations mean that a flight must be fully staffed. At Massey’s aviation school, Ngo saw graduates entering an uncertain labor market in 2020 and 2021 suddenly find jobs across New Zealand and internationally.

If driving is not an option, flights have more capacity than alternative buses or trains (Photo: Dean Purcell-Pool/Getty Images)

The effects also flow: if a plane gets stuck at an airport, then it is not in the right location for the next batch of passengers. The small size of New Zealand also means that weather disruption could affect many airports. Since Air New Zealand and Jetstar operate as a duopoly for high -frequency connections between major centers, the possibility of cancellation does not deter consumers from using these services: there really aren’t many options.

But the pandemic isn’t going anywhere, nor are the flight-interrupting weather conditions exacerbated by climate change. “Flight delays will continue in the coming months,” Ngo said. If the industry can recover to 2019 levels, it will be slow. So for people who want to get from A to B, what are the alternatives?

Well, there’s the train. KiwiRail operates commuter services between Hamilton and Auckland and Palmerston North and Wellington for weekday commuters. They also have lines running from Auckland to Wellington, from Picton to Christchurch, and from Christchurch to Westport. However, these services further afield are “beautiful”, designed for tourists – and also priced for them. “KiwiRail’s passenger service may be an alternative to some domestic air flights, but it is somewhat limited, ”said Tracey Goodall, general manager for KiwiRail’s scenery and commuter services.

KiwiRail services feature beautiful views: why aren’t they more frequent? (Photo: KiwiRail)

“The passenger rail has a role to play by providing a low -emission transportation option,” Goodall said. But it’s not low cost: the Auckland-Wellington train service, which costs $ 219 one way, won’t continue until September, and takes 12 hours, comparable to a bus. With an alternate frequency of the day, and a capacity of only 126 people on the Picton-Christchurch service, 189 on the Auckland-Wellington service, and 252 people on the Christchurch-Greymouth service, the railway lines could not carry nearly as many people as often. flights. In comparison, Air New Zealand operates as many as 17 Auckland-Wellington flights per day, and Jetstar approximately three; most of these services will work Airbus A320s, which can fit up to 180 people; that is space for as many as 3,600 people between just those two cities, which is much larger than any of the other options.

The railroad can’t compete with flights for speed or cost, though wifi ride, beautiful views, and comfort can compensate. Because these services are “good”, rather than for transportation purposes, they are not part of the current public transport subsidy, or other government support. Meanwhile, Air New Zealand has received passenger and freight service hundreds of millions of dollars of government money since the pandemic began.

There is also the Intercity bus, which is carried over a million passengers every year before the pandemic, many of them were tourists and backpackers. Bus services go to many places where there are no airports, have a relatively stable pricing structure, and can be booked within a few hours when you want to leave. Unlike airports, which are usually far from CBDs where land is cheap, bus stations are centrally located and easily accessible for those without vehicles. But bus services, too, are limited in frequency and capacity, and prices are usually the equivalent of cheap flights – and slower. (Intercity did not respond to The Spinoff’s multiple requests for comment).

The limitations of bus and train services reiterate how dependent New Zealand’s transport system relies on high -emission private vehicles and planes, and how quickly it needs to change. The transportation system does not work for people who refuses to fly, or living in areas without an airport. Abroad, stable rail infrastructure means that high-speed train services are an affordable and convenient way to get around, but-as trials and tribulations of the City Rail Link show – making this infrastructure costly. Currently, the lack of options for consumers without a vehicle means that when events such as bad weather, mechanical failure, or the ongoing pandemic have knocked down some airline services, customers are stuck. .

For Ramasubramanian, who arrived in Wellington on Tuesday morning, lacking sleep after a rainy night on the bus, his experience reinforced the reasons why Aotearoa’s transport infrastructure needs to be improved. “There should be more alternatives for domestic travel beyond flights at a significant price point,” he said. “We’re well connected by flights but if that isn’t an option, Intercity has a monopoly on buses and the railways are just for scenic purposes.” For now, flying will be his default tour of the country-but he may be done booking with Jetstar.