Whakatane Mayor Tony Bonne, and the mayors of Kawerau and Opotiki, John Forbes and Malcolm Campbell, travelled to the capital to lobby for the airline’s decision to be reversed.
They went armed with a letter of support from the Bay of Plenty District Health Board, which is supporting the mayors’ joint campaign.
In the letter, board chairwoman Sally Webb expresses surprise that with more than 50 percent of Air New Zealand shares held by the Government, there is apparent Government support for withdrawing scheduled air services from such a large, predominantly rural area.
“As you are all aware the Government and the health board have recently invested $64 million in this region to build a new hospital, a decision premised on the difficulty of access to services the geography of the Eastern Bay of Plenty creates.”
While health services in the Eastern Bay were not specifically reliant on the scheduled air service, it was an important consideration in a number of other ways that directly affected the future viability of health services, she said.
“The rural nature of the Eastern Bay means that recruitment and retention of key staff is always problematic.
“With no scheduled air access locally this will only increase the level of difficulty.”
Doctors, nurses and other staff from Whakatane Hospital and associated community services travelled to attend national meetings or for training and development.
“This decision means they will need to be given more time off to travel, patients will lose access to their skills for longer periods and the health board will incur more costs.”
She said bringing in specialists and arranging travel for some patients would be more expensive and take longer. These costs would be borne by the health board and ultimately the taxpayer.
The health board’s preference would be for Air New Zealand to continue scheduled services, Mrs Webb said.
However, the board could see worth in pursuing the Government, as joint owner of Whakatane Airport, to support the council in ensuring the airport remained an affordable option for smaller operators.
If there was no prospect of Government intervention, the mayors hoped to get some reassurance from the Government yesterday that it would back regional economic development initiatives to address the impact of the withdrawal in April 2015.
An economic impact assessment is being conducted by the council and the business services team is meeting with potential alternative providers.
Chief executive Marty Grenfell said a preferred provider should be identified before Christmas.
Mr Grenfell said recent meetings with Air New Zealand had not produced any useful outcomes and short of direct Government intervention, it was looking increasingly unlikely that the decision would be reviewed.
This position was reinforced last week by the airlines regional affairs manager, Ian Collier, when he clearly explained the economics behind the decision during a visit to Whakatane.
Demand had been flat in Whakatane for 10 years. It could not sustain one of the new 50-seater aircraft and all the airline’s 19-seater Beechcrafts were being phased out and could not be replaced, he told business owners.