THREE-YEAR DEAL: Newcastle lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes and Port Stephens mayor Ryan Palmer in the cockpit of a Virgin passenger plane at the airport in July. The two councils are joint owners of the commercial airport.

THREE-YEAR DEAL: Newcastle lord mayor Nuatali Nelmes and Port Stephens mayor Ryan Palmer in the cockpit of a Virgin passenger plane at the airport in July. The two councils are joint owners of the commercial airport.

Kiwi tourism plan takes flight

Newcastle Airport hopes Auckland flights will boost visitor numbers and its upgrade plans

Tourism
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Virgin Australia is recommencing flights direct from Newcastle to Auckland, in a win for the region's economy.

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Newcastle Airport hopes to boost visitor numbers from New Zealand and turbocharge its $147 million upgrade plans when it resumes international flights in November.

Virgin Australia will fly to and from Auckland three days a week from November 21 to February 16, repeating the service it launched last summer.

The airport, which is owned by Newcastle and Port Stephens councils, has secured a three-year agreement with Virgin to operate the 13-week seasonal service, following the one-year deal they signed last year.

Airport chief executive Dr Peter Cock said the flights had delivered an estimated $5.4 million boost to the Hunter last summer.

The leisure travellers spent on average 17 days in our region last season. We didn't predict that Kiwis would stay for so long - Dr Peter Cock

"The leisure travellers spent on average 17 days in our region last season," he said. "We didn't predict that Kiwis would stay for so long.

"One of the things we found, because we did lots of surveying on the way out, was that they didn't just go to rellies in Maitland or Newcastle somewhere. They visited Newcastle, Port Stephens, they went up to the Hunter Valley, and Lake Mac well."

The Newcastle Herald reported in February that the airport had approached the NSW government to fund a $147 million terminal and runway upgrade which would cater for larger commercial aircraft capable of flying to the US west coast, China, the Middle East and South Africa.

Planes flying out of Newcastle now have a range limited to near neighbours such as Bali and Auckland, the latter of which is the city's only international service.

EXPANSION PLAN: Airport chief executive Dr Peter Cock.

EXPANSION PLAN: Airport chief executive Dr Peter Cock.

"We're working with the state government on strengthening the runway," Dr Cock said. "They're having a really hard look and doing a detailed assessment of the work we've done."

He said the new three-year deal to fly to Auckland "cemented" Newcastle as an international airport and showed there was demand for international slights.

"Imagine if we had wide-body [aircraft] access, how much that would multiply the impact and economic benefit from the runway upgrade.

"The state government are working really well with us, and I'm really happy with the engagement we're getting.

"They're taking this very seriously, and it's got to go through its steps. It's got to be properly assessed, as any prudent government would do."

Neither the airline nor the airport would release passenger numbers for last summer's Auckland flights, but Dr Cock said more people had flown out of Newcastle than into it.

"Outbound was more than inbound, so we really want to promote inbound, because that's where the economic drive comes," he said.

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Dr Cock said passenger numbers had "really started taking off" last summer once Virgin started matching the price of flights from Sydney.

"Our market is very price sensitive. But Virgin want it to work; they've got skin in the game.

"They're focusing on trans-Tasman, and they want to increase their market share. Newcastle's a really obvious partner, with over a million people in our catchment.

"It's a three-year deal, so people have got confidence now. It will be in market and you can book further out, which is important for new routes."

The story Kiwi tourism plan takes flight first appeared on Newcastle Herald.

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