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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyOctober 31, 2022

Remember when domestic flights were $29?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Everyone’s complaining about the rising cost of air travel in New Zealand. 

There’s a lot of talk about the world being “post-Covid” and how everything is starting to “return to normal”. While in some ways that may be true – toilet paper is no longer quite such a valuable commodity – there’s at least one way in which things still feel unpleasantly abnormal: the cost of travel.

Following an already tough few months for Air New Zealand, with the airline’s direct service to Fiji New York generating its fair share of free publicity, there has been an increased focus on the growing cost of air travel around New Zealand and abroad. That culminated in RNZ today sending a reporter to the airport to cover the phenomenon. “Air New Zealand is warning travellers to book holidays early,” the report began. “RNZ headed out to Auckland Airport to find out how much people were paying.”

Over on Twitter, press gallery journalist Ben McKay called New Zealand flight prices “criminal”, prompting dozens to chime in. “Insane,” commented commentator Morgan Godfery. “The national price gouger.” Similarly, Newsroom’s Jo Moir wrote: “I honestly don’t know how people with little cash to spare who desperately need to get somewhere in an emergency are managing.”

It’s a good question. It wasn’t that long ago that travel around New Zealand was cheap. And not just cheaper than now, but actually cheap. Remember Naked Bus, with its slogan of “we have stripped out the costs that you don’t need”? Or the Northern Explorer train service, which now starts out at an outrageous $219 each way? Driving always seemed like the budget option, but petrol prices have quickly made a cross-country roadie an unappealing option too. 

And what about Air New Zealand’s nightrider, which provided late night flights to a few key centres for as low as $29. By sacrificing the in-flight snack, the national airline was capable of making travel affordable for all. It lasted about two years in the early 2010s, before being revived for a very brief period in 2015. As a student at the time, these services were incredibly useful. And as a journalist now, I’d quite like them again. 

It meant travelling to see family was not just an obligation relegated to the Christmas holidays but something that could happen at a whim. It meant going to see a concert in another city wasn’t going to bankrupt me. It meant I didn’t have to fly Jetstar.

Speaking of the cheaper alternative, Jetstar also played its part. The airline has always tried to cling to its reputation of being the cheapest, meaning that when Air New Zealand announced it would be cutting its regional fares in 2019 – yes, just months before hiking them because of Covid – Jetstar swiftly introduced a 10% price beat policy. That competitiveness between airlines seems to have now been replaced with a policy of defensiveness. Instead of trying to outmanoeuvre each other with prices, they’re now attempting to justify the costs.

Air New Zealand today said that unprecedented demand for travel coupled with a shortage of aircrafts, rising fuel prices and inflation was responsible for the high cost of travel. It also claimed that it kept prices high on the last few remaining seats on every flight in case people needed to travel urgently, perhaps forgetting that people in emergencies are not universally wealthy.

While things get back to “normal” and the world starts to move on from Covid, the expense associated with travel brings an unfortunate reminder that things aren’t what they used to be. I worked out this morning that if I choose to fly home to Wellington for Christmas I can probably do it for just under $200, which I guess is now cheap? The same dates would be close to $150 for a return bus trip. The pain to gain ratio of spending that amount of money for an 11 hour overnight expedition doesn’t feel right.

A $29 flight in 2022 would be a true miracle – as would a cheap bus ride, train trip or tank of fuel.

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