Sunday, March 18, 2012

Fleet grounding spares Air Nelson travelers

Air Nelson passengers are unlikely to be affected by the weekend grounding of most of the fleet of ATR aircraft operated by its sister Link operator, Air New Zealand said today.

The company has re-scheduled jet services, rather than its turboprop fleet, to help ferry passengers stranded by the weekend grounding of most of the ATR fleet.

Air New Zealand yesterday cancelled most ATR services after hairline cracks were found around windows of the cockpit in one aircraft during routine overnight maintenance in Christchurch.

Mount Cook Airline general manager Sarah Williamson said inspections were continuing on the rest of the fleet in conjunction with the French aircraft manufacturer ATR.The ATR-500 aircraft are operated by Mount Cook – an Air New Zealand Link operator. It expects to have around two-thirds of its normal seat capacity today with three ATR aircraft in service and additional flights from other Air New Zealand aircraft.

Air Nelson Technical helps maintain the ATR fleet, and one of the aircraft was currently in the Nelson hangar undergoing scheduled heavy maintenance, Air Nelson Technical manager Rob Burdekin said today. He said they were waiting for direction from the company on the next step with the aircraft.

"We don't know the status of the aircraft we have here. Our staff and engineers are well-equipped here to deal with the situation in-house," Mr Burdekin said.

He added that the discovery of the problem during a routine check was an indication the system was working as it should.

Ms Williamson expected more aircraft would be back in service later today, following inspection.

Yesterday's cancellations affected around 3000 passengers as about 60 one-way services were grounded.

The ATR-500 aircraft have been in service with Mount Cook since 1999 and have an average age of 10.9 years. The 68-seat aircraft operates to 10 destinations around New Zealand.

Air New Zealand announced in October last year it would be upgrading the ATR fleet with the purchase of seven new-generation ATR72-600 aircraft, with purchase options for a further five worth a total of $340 million.

The first two planes were scheduled to arrive in October and December this year with the rest delivered by 2016.

The expansion would double the current ATR fleet and add a further two million seats to the New Zealand regional market annually.

Air NZ chief executive Rob Fyfe said the purchase of larger aircraft, including the 23 Air Nelson Q300 aircraft over the past six years, and the lowering of fares had led to an average annual increase in regional passenger numbers of 5.6 per cent since 2003.

Regional airlines carried about 4.3 million passengers in the year to September this year.

Air New Zealand could not be reached for comment on whether the new ATR aircraft might be introduced earlier.

Mr Burdekin could not speak for the airline but doubted that would occur.

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