The government of New Zealand is sympathetic over the harm caused by Air New Zealand’s continued refusal to fly to Vanuatu, but it can’t go further than voicing its concerns, says Winston Peters.

At a press conference on Thursday afternoon, New Zealand’s Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters was asked if his government was aware of the economic damage done by Air New Zealand’s decision to cease scheduled service to Vanuatu, and what steps they’d taken to mitigate the harm.

“We’re aware that originally the statement was that the [Bauerfield] airport wasn’t up to it,” he said. “But we’ve received further confirmation today—although we knew it beforehand—that the airport’s issues have been addressed.”

He emphasised that Air New Zealand’s ownership structure was “the most peculiar” in the country. “You’ll have seen that over and over again,” he said.

“They’re majority owned by the New Zealand taxpayer, but they’re unlike any other state-owned asset,” he added. They have a management structure “with which parliamentarians cannot interfere”.

“It doesn’t mean we can’t make comment,” he added.

“My team’s going to back to New Zealand fully apprised of the situation,” he said, implying that they would make their frank views known.

Asked if there were any other steps his government was willing to take to mitigate the hundreds of millions of vatu lost to this decision, he said, “I could answer that question, but it wouldn’t be worth the air it passes on. What I can go do is go back there and make it very clear to Air New Zealand that our nation’s reputation is on the line here”.

He rejected the pretence of the original decision to cancel scheduled service. “Their original excuse, if it had any validity, has gone.” He chuckled and added, “we’ve got to have a talk with them, so to speak, in the interests of the Vanuatu people.”

Aviation stakeholders and government officials in Vanuatu have expressed increasing frustration at what they portray as a hidden agenda. Air New Zealand seized a face-saving opportunity to shut down an inconvenient service, they allege, and now that the pretence of security concerns has been removed, their true motivations are becoming clear.

In January 2016, Air New Zealand was the first of three airlines to suspend service to Port Vila’s Bauerfield international airport due to safety concerns after the runway was found to be badly degraded in sections.

Airports Vanuatu Limited, which operates the airport, embarked on a crash recovery programme, and among other things, began visual inspections of the runway before and after every jet landing or departure. Emergency patching was begun, and the World Bank funded a comprehensive repair and upgrade, which was completed recently.

Virgin Pacific returned to service in short order, and Qantas resumed its code share on key routes after that. Only Air New Zealand has declined to resume service.

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