14 May 2020

'First flight to freedom': Regional airport back in business

3:44 pm on 14 May 2020

The coffee machines were back in action, and sparrows gathered crumbs from the floor of the Nelson Airport terminal as a smattering of passengers hopped on resumed regional flights.

Nelson Airport on day one of alert level 2

Nelson Airport on day one of alert level 2. Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

The airport was among a number around the country to welcome today's move to alert level 2, which signalled a big step in the revival of domestic travel and air services.

It was a big day for the beleaguered Picton based commuter airline Sounds Air, which has been hanging by a thread.

While it has been flying essential freight and workers, today it resumed scheduled passenger services, with the first flight in from Wellington offloading just one passenger.

A Sounds Air pilot told RNZ that the normally 12-seater aircraft had been re-configured to take a maximum seven passengers, and because five were booked for the return trip, that was effectively an 80 percent loading he was happy with.

Waiting to catch an Air New Zealand flight to Wellington early this morning was an excited Judy Green.

"I feel like I'm on the first flight to freedom!

"I'm off to see my six-month-old grandson, and my daughter and her husband of course, but I'm really missing the wee boy - I've missed out on some special moments."

Nelson Airport on day one of alert level 2

Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

Swiss tourist Kay Wafler was unhappy to be heading back home, but he was happy to get his first espresso coffee fix in weeks.

"We're unfortunately back home to Switzerland via Los Angeles, and this is my first non-plunger coffee in two months so I'm psyched about it - I'll be vibrating all day."

Wafler said he and his partner had been locked down in Mapua throughout.

"It's been enormous - it's been great. We're so sad to leave - we'd love to stay."

Nelson Airport on day one of alert level 2, coffee machines back on

Photo: RNZ / Tracy Neal

Also unhappy about leaving was US tourist Dawn Hagin, heading from Nelson to Auckland and then on to Los Angeles.

She and her partner arrived in late January, and have been stuck happily in Golden Bay.

"We were hoping to leave late April ... well, not hoping, as we really love it here and it was nice to have everything extended but it's time to go back."

Hagin said she had some misgivings about returning the US, where Covid-19 had taken hold.

"I'm not real thrilled about the lack of leadership there but my mum's in Arizona and I'd like to check on her.

"We're going back to Sedona which is a pretty nice area up in the mountains so I'm not so concerned."

'We're all resilient'

Nelson Airport expected the hiatus in air travel would likely mean short-term pain in its balance sheet.

Its new $32 million terminal was officially opened by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern late last year, but since the arrival of Covid-19 revenue had taken a hit with the drop in aircraft movements and the corresponding drop in income from landing fees.

Nelson Airport chief executive Rob Evans

Rob Evans. Photo: Supplied / Tim Cuff

Airport company chief executive Rob Evans said today's move to level 2 was a small but very important step in the recovery of the airport, and of aviation in general.

He said investment in the new terminal was timed well, as it would have spelled bigger trouble for the company had the terminal project still been under construction

The company would now start on forecasting budgets.

"It's a bit of a shock to the system for us all in this industry, but we're all resilient and we've got good facilities, a good relationship with our bank and there's no real issue with the company's ability to service its loans and carry on operating."

Evans said it was not yet clear if a dividend would be paid this year to shareholders, the Nelson and Tasman councils.

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