New figures show dramatic plunge in international flights arriving in Auckland, destinations served

Corazon Miller
Source: 1News

A year on from Covid-19's crippling of the global aviation industry and the bumpy ride is set to continue, with the number of flights and international travellers down more than 90 per cent.

And with no clear plan as to when New Zealand will open up, the aviation sector is concerned that Kiwis will lose out on vital links all around the world.

Justin Tighe-Umbers is the executive director for BARNZ - an organisation representing the aviation industry in New Zealand.

He says while there is hope on the horizon for a trans-Tasman bubble, things are less clear when it comes to international long-haul flights.

“We are probably one of the most dependent countries in the world on our air links,” he says.

Without any certainty around borders opening, Tighe-Umbers says there is a risk airlines will repurpose their flights if the rest of the world opens up before we do.

“The danger is they will just repurpose their flights. It takes a long time for airlines to set up and invest in connections here,” he says.

“Once they leave they are typically gone for four or five years.”

Data obtained by 1 NEWS shows flights arriving here are down 92 per cent across the traditional peak season.

The BARNZ data also shows direct flights to Argentina, Canada, Chile, French Polynesia, Indonesia, New Caledonia, Qatar, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates are among those we have currently lost as a result of Covid.

The Buenos Aires connection has been cancelled completely, with the other flights suspended indefinitely.

Auckland International Airport - the gateway to the country - handles around 70 per cent of international traffic. Before Covid it would have seen more than 17,000 passengers arrive on a busy day.

This January saw a daily average of 400 - a 98 per cent drop in passenger volume.

The 43 destinations it once served is down to just 20. Flights to Buenos Aires was cancelled after Covid, and the cancellation of the Los Angeles-London connection was brought forward seven months.

Meanwhile flights to and from Adelaide, Bangkok, Beijing, Chengdu, Chicago, Coolangatta (Gold Coast), Honolulu, Houston, Kuala Lumpur, Newcastle, Norfolk Island, Noumea, Osaka, Papeete, Perth, San Francisco, Santiago, Shenzhen, Suva and Vancouver are among those suspended indefinitely.

Of the flights still in the air, most have been greatly reduced. Auckland International Airport data shows where there were once flights that flew eight times a day to Brisbane; these have been dropped to once a day. Flights to Hong Kong have dropped from twice daily to twice a week and Sydney has gone from 14 flights a day to just eight a week.

Other flights are even less frequent, with those to Nadi, Fiji only going once a fortnight and Tokyo only once a week.

International connections to Wellington, Queenstown and Dunedin are also on hold.

Scott Tasker, the Aeronautical Commercial general manager for Auckland Airport, says South America has been a particularly difficult spot to get to.

“It’s extremely difficult to get there, really the only way to get there is through North America. And the way that the Covid travel restrictions are running at the moment it is even difficult to get through there.”

Giovany Gonzales, 24, was trapped in Ecuador when Covid-19 saw direct flights back to New Zealand grounded.

It’s been more than a year since he last saw his family in person.

“It is so, so bad in Ecuador,” he says. “Everybody is doing their best, but financially everybody is really struggling. We are taking care of ourselves, but it is a constant fight.”

Finding his way back home to Hamilton is proving difficult. His LATAM flight is unlikely to go till after New Zealand fully opens up.

Other options are costly and involve going through Colombia which, as a former Colombian refugee, is simply not an option.

His mother, Barbara, says it’s very difficult being so far away from her son and not knowing when they’ll be reunited again.

“We miss our son very much, and we understand there are other families in the same situation as well,” she says. “We understand this country wants to be protected against Covid, but we would like whoever is in charge to think about opening borders so we can have our family here with us.”

In the meantime his younger brother, Thomas, 15, has had to step up and be his parents' key support person.

“He was my best friend, my everything, so one year without him is like hard - really hard,” he says. “It’s really hard, because we came here [as refugees] without knowing English. So when my parents told me to help them in the bank, I have to translate everything.”

Just when borders will open remains unclear, but the aviation sector is prepared.

Tasker says the hard yards have been done to get things ready for safe travel.

He says while it’s unclear just how things will evolve he is hopeful people - and the airlines - will return down under.

“Given how well we have been observed to have managed Covid within the country we are pretty positive we will see a return of international connectivity when the time comes.”

But as for when exactly that will be?

“Ultimately the opening of the borders is a matter for the Government to determine. But I think that our next best guess is it roughly follows the vaccination of the New Zealand population.

“ maybe early next year?”

Justin Tighe-Umbers says in the meantime, more support for the aviation sector is crucial to keeping New Zealand on the radar.

“If we lose this capability it affects the whole economy. New Zealanders are looking for increased certainty,” he says.

“‘When am I going to be able to visit my friends and family? Indeed, 'when am I going to be able to get home?', 'when am I going to be able to get out to my markets and grow my sales overseas?'"