17 May 2024

New Caledonia's Nouméa airport is closed until Tuesday, Air New Zealand says

6:46 pm on 17 May 2024
Air New Zealand

File image. Photo: RNZ / Nate McKinnon

Air New Zealand has confirmed Nouméa airport in New Caledonia is closed until Tuesday, as civil unrest continues in the French territory.

In a statement, Air NZ said the closure of the airport left it "with no option but to cancel our services on Saturday 18 May and Monday 20 May".

But a group family from New Zealand taking cover in an Airbnb say the situation is serious, they want to leave as soon as possible, and are worried heart medication used by two of them may run out.

Unrest began on Monday and has seen roadblocks, violence, rioting, and businesses looted and burned. Many people are sheltering inside. The death toll has risen to five on Friday, after more riots overnight.

Hundreds of people have been arrested by French forces who have been deployed to try to calm the tensions.

French President Emmanuel Macron is set to hold crisis meetings with New Caledonian officials online.

"Even when the airport does reopen, Air New Zealand will only operate into Nouméa when we can be assured that the airport is safe and secure, and that there is a safe route for our ground staff and customers to reach the airport," Air NZ said in the statement.

"We are in close contact with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), who are providing us with updated information and guidance, as well as our codeshare partner Aircalin.

"Once we are able to resume operations again, customers will be rebooked onto available services. We are also offering flexibility for customers to defer travel."

Air NZ head of flight operations Hugh Pearce told Checkpoint there were 168 passengers who had planned to travel on the airline there.

"We understand we have a plane load essentially that would have otherwise travelled out tomorrow if the air field wasn't closed.

"But our hearts do go out to the people on the ground in Nouméa, it's clear they're in a very difficult and stressful situation that's also very fluid.

"There are other airlines who will be involved of course and they may form part of the picture for people wanting to leave Nouméa, Aircalin and others."

Kiwi family stuck with dwindling supplies say they should have been warned

The grounded flights means people like the Guse family are stuck for the meantime.

Shula Guse and husband Wolf were supposed to have the trip of a lifetime celebrating Shula's birthday in Nouméa. She told Checkpoint's Lisa Owen they had arrived in the country to unexpected and frightening scenes.

The road between the airport and Nouméa had been: "Absolutely full of barricades, and people waving flags, waving branches, and it looked like they were willing to throw stones if the occasion merited - we tried to wave, smile, be friendly and pass slowly and keep safe.

"We were actually quite upset, neither Air New Zealand, nor the government has actually put an alarm on, on Monday. All this is totally unnecessary."

She said there should have been warnings not to travel and so they knew what they would be walking into.

Two of the four people in their group relied on heart medication, and their supplies would run out by Saturday "at the latest", so they hoped to leave as soon as possible, Shula Guse said.

French gendarme officers guard the entrance of the Vallee-du-Tir district, in Noumea on May 14, 2024, amid protests linked to a debate on a constitutional bill aimed at enlarging the electorate for upcoming elections of the overseas French territory of New Caledonia. After scenes of violence of "great intensity" including burned vehicles, looted stores and clashes between demonstrators and the police, a curfew was decreed in Noumea, 17,000 kilometers from Paris, as the independentists of the overseas French territory of New Caledonia oppose a constitutional revision they fear will "further minimize the indigenous Kanak people". (Photo by Theo Rouby / AFP)

The Vallee-du-Tir district, in Nouméa on Tuesday 14 May. Photo: AFP / Theo Rouby

From their accommodation they could hear gunfire and soldiers.

There were a lot of army vehicles on the roads "all the time, police with guns driving by all the time, helicopters all the time, it is serious.

"We are basically stuck here without very much information. It is better now, people started contacting us after you basically intervened."

Read more:

She talked to Checkpoint on Friday night as she entered a supermarket after queuing for two hours to get in to get supplies.

Shops, including the supermarket were closed as the violence threatened to spread, and those that had opened had gaps in the stock available, so people were hurrying to get what they could now, she said.

"It's absolutely very very crowded, there is army presence. They got us off the [main] street onto a back street to queue because I guess it is safer so nobody can open fire on us. ...I feel very safe, there is a lot of police present.

"It's really expensive, everybody has hiked up their prices. You can't get anything really at the supermarket except when they open with military presence."

The family had originally tried to go out on the roads, but had to turn back. "We've given up very fast on that, ... we realised how many road blocks and how much violence there is around. ...We have seen a lot of cars burned down."

The group are staying at an Airbnb with no staff to help them, but they felt safe enough inside with the gates closed, Guse said: "We have to look after ourselves. We lock everything. That's the safest we can do and there's no point worrying about it other than that."

French armed forces started to arrive in Nouméa on Thursday 16 May 2024.

French armed forces began to arrive in Nouméa on Thursday Photo: NC la 1ère

Work towards flying New Zealanders home

Air New Zealand staff were meeting with MFAT officials through the weekend, and keeping in touch with their 30 staff members on the ground there - most of whom were contractors, Pearce said.

Asked if crew members had a choice in not going on the flight to Nouméa when it resumed, he said: "We don't put people our anywhere where they won't be safe.

"Part of the thinking around operating there will be the ability of passengers and staff in Nouméa to move to and from the air field, but there's always the consideration for us about safety of our crew should the aircraft go in serviceable once on the ground there, so we would want to have confidence that we can look after them and get them to a hotel if that was what was needed.

"It'll be an assessment as to how things evolve and we'll be relying on MFAT and other locals to provide advice for that so we can ensure safety is upheld."

MFAT could approach the airline to take cargo and supplies, Pearce said, and they would respond to those requests as they came in.

People who had booked flights to Nouméa but could no longer travel had the option of transferring it to Air NZ credit instead, he said.

Peters says govt working on 'hourly basis'

Earlier today, Minister of Foreign Affairs Winston Peters told Morning Report government officials had been working on an "hourly basis" to see what could be done to help New Zealanders wanting to leave.

That included the Airforce or using a commercial airline.

More than 200 New Zealanders were registered as being in the country, his advice to them was to stay in place and keep in contact.

Before the closure of the airport, Wellington researcher Barbara Graham - who has been in Nouméa for five weeks - said the main issue was "the road to the airport ... and I understand it still impassable because of the danger there, the roadblocks and the violent groups of people".

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs