Affluent Airline Assistance – Councils funnel millions into failing regional flight services
The Taxpayers’ Union has revealed that several councils have forked out millions of ratepayer dollars to subsidise a private airline and the wealthy individuals using it.
Across Kāpiti Coast, Whakatāne, and Whanganui, ratepayers have footed the bill for over $2 million in corporate (and middle-class) welfare to maintain regular flight services to Auckland. From 2018 to date, KCDC have gifted almost $1.5 million dollars in grants and interest-free loans to Air Chathams. Accompanied with hundreds of thousands in loans splurged by Whanganui and Whakatāne district councils on their routes, the total value of welfare is brought to more than $2 million.
If these routes were financially viable, and demand was plentiful, airlines would pick them up without the need for council subsidies. Unfortunately, there clearly is not enough demand to justify continuing with these services. Documents obtained by the Taxpayers’ Union under the LGOIMA indicate that Kāpiti Coast District Council believed the service would become profitable after a few years, but would run at a loss initially. If this really was the case, established airlines should be able to access their loans privately, rather than exposing ratepayers to the risk of default.
Prior to the Air Chathams takeover, Air New Zealand operated all three of these services. Due to financial unviability, however, one by one the routes were cancelled. That same despair was shared by Air Chathams themselves, who recognised the numbers didn’t stack up. However, when presented with the option of a million dollars in free money by seemingly economically illiterate councillors, the decision to continue the service was an offer too attractive to refuse.
With alternative airports nearby, flyers were ‘voting with their feet’ and opting to travel to other airports instead. Whanganui residents, for example, were pivoting towards Palmerston North as the more attractive alternative. There’s good reason for the change in preference too. Rotorua, Tauranga, Palmerston North and Wellington airports are all under an hour away from at least one of the three airports in question. In general, they have a greater range of flight times available and, for the most part, far cheaper prices. Wellington’s fares to Auckland are, at times, only a third of Kāpiti's.
*Air Chathams takes over Kāpiti Coast's Auckland Service*
The Kāpiti Coast Council has claimed there is strong public support for the subsidies. This, however, is based on a series of out of date analyses with flawed methodology. In 2018, they commissioned a survey to gauge public support for the airport, but nowhere did the survey mention ratepayer funding. Despite respondents agreeing with the statement, “Kāpiti Coast Airport should work to ensure frequent passenger services to popular destinations around New Zealand are provided to and from the airport”, the question neglected to ask respondents' positions on ratepayer funding of such a service and therefore does not provide a true refection of what the community actually feels. What’s more, the methodology states that any individual who had not flown out of any of the airports in the area did not qualify for the survey. That is like claiming the whole community wants a new racecourse when you only surveyed the jockeys.
Even the airport’s CEO recognised that the airport was simply not viable. He points out that the airport needs 400,000 people flying a year to be worthwhile — currently there are 25000.
What is more is that, regardless of how cost-ineffective the provision of these services is, there remains a striking contradiction at play with the Councils’ climate change initiatives. Kāpiti Coast for example, crows about their climate change approach, acknowledging the importance of reducing their carbon footprint wherever possible. Whakātane and Whanganui are also strong advocates. Yet, they are all more than happy to subsidise gas guzzling aircrafts which, consistently, have been running on reduced passenger numbers.
Of course, due to the waterbed effect, emissions in any one sector (agriculture excluded) have no impact on New Zealand's net emissions, given total net carbon emissions are capped by the Emissions Trading Scheme. However, the fact that the Councils' endorsement of a carbon-emitting travel option contradicts their own (albiet ill-informed) values suggests they are incapable of holding a coherent position on their environmental impacts.
This is, simply, a regressive allocation of ratepayer funds. One where the exorbitant cost on lower-income ratepayers is used to benefit a small selection of wealthy businesspeople. These subsidies fail the litmus test of good spending decisions. They are regressive, inefficient and ultimately will just prolong the inevitable closure of this failing airport.