Air New Zealand has bowed to concerns over the unreliability of its Queenstown-Christchurch turboprop service in poor weather.
Mountain Scene can reveal it’s placing a Boeing jet on stand-by for the rest of the winter to minimise weather disruptions.
Unlike its jets, Air NZ’s ATR turboprops aren’t equipped with required navigation performance (RNP) technology – a satellite-based system that allows planes to land and take off in poor visibility.
Since Jetstar pulled its Queenstown-Christchurch jet service last November, this major route has been serviced only by ATRs operated by Air NZ subsidiary Mount Cook Airline.
From April the ATR service has been frequently disrupted, causing frustration to thousands of passengers.
Destination Queenstown boss Graham Budd says the disruptions have concerned him: “It’s very disruptive not only for those passengers but also for all the businesses who might have accommodation and other things booked.
“The ATRs from Wellington have also been affected but Air NZ has put on some jets from Wellington.
“My understanding is that the changes to flight paths and flight patterns for ATRs have meant that their poor-weather performance isn’t as good as it used to be.”
Queenstown Airport boss Scott Paterson has been airing his concerns to Air NZ since April: “In April we had some disrupts and we thought, ‘well, this is nothing compared to what could happen over winter’.
“We tried to encourage them to put on jets because we think the market’s big enough for jets during the winter period.”
Christchurch Airport boss and Queenstowner Jim Boult says he brought up the issue with Air NZ two weeks ago.
“We’re well aware of a number of cancellations and missed approaches that have caused disruptions on ATR flights between Christchurch and Queenstown and obviously that’s a concern to us as we get negative feedback from the travelling public.
“But I’m also aware that Air NZ is well aware of the situation.”
Air NZ spokesperson Emma Field says the airline is working with the ATR manufacturer to investigate whether the turboprops can be fitted with RNP authorisation required (AR) navigation equipment – “but the reality is that if it’s possible it would take quite some time to achieve”.
“We acknowledge that some customers have been inconvenienced by these unavoidable weather disruptions over recent weeks.
“However, we’re pleased to be able to share the news that in order to minimise any further impact on customers we have taken the decision to designate an RNP AR-equipped Boeing 737-300 as a stand-by aircraft within our fleet to assist with weather disruptions of this nature for the remainder of the winter season,” Field says.
“We’re in the process of switching our domestic jet fleet from Boeing 737-300 to Airbus A320 aircraft.
“This aircraft would normally be surplus to our requirements, however we have taken the decision to retain it in order to have the flexibility to use it to assist in weather-disrupt situations such as those experienced in Queenstown.”
Paterson says it’s brilliant news: “The best [option] is that they would have a scheduled jet and then people can book with confidence.
“The second best is that they have this jet available.”
Budd agrees: “That’s very good news and it will be good news and some reassurance to the travelling public flying [between Queens-town and Christchurch] that there’s a back-up option for them to be transferred to a 737.”