Connections from Canberra to destinations on the east coast of the United States through New Zealand will be looked to as part of an ambitious post-pandemic travel plan being pursued by the ACT government.
Chief Minister Andrew Barr says his government has agreed with counterparts in New Zealand that any direct flights need to have a growth strategy beyond a six-month tourist season.
"There's a lot of interest on their side. They've done the evaluation of the Canberra market, our above Australian average incomes, our propensity to travel. We're a good target market for them, that's well understood," Mr Barr said.
Mr Barr last week travelled to New Zealand to meet with local government counterparts, airlines and tourism officials to discuss flights to and from Canberra.
Flights could still link Canberra Airport with Wellington and Auckland in time for the summer tourism season, but Mr Barr said it was unlikely passengers would arrive in time for Floriade.
Mr Barr said he thought Qantas was the most likely airline to fly directly between Canberra and Wellington, operating smaller planes with more frequent services.
The Chief Minister said Air New Zealand was the most likely operator to service the Canberra to Auckland route.
"The discussion with Air New Zealand was, well, they don't want to start something and then stop it after six months. What we've got to have a plan for is what's the two and year-three proposition. That's what we're going to talk to them further about," Mr Barr said.
Air New Zealand flies to destinations on the east coast of the United States, including New York City and Washington, which could pave the way for more direct links with Canberra. The airline has postponed a previously announced direct service with New York City.
"We'd have to have a bit of a punt on will borders open to North America in the second half of 2022. That's probably where the federal government is currently at, but presumably that relies upon the domestic vaccination program picking up a pace," Mr Barr said.
Canberra Airport head of aviation Michael Thomson said the airport would support any move to provide better connections with the United States.
"If we could get direct flights from Canberra into Auckland, then it would be one stop into New York, which would be a fantastic opportunity for Canberrans and people in the region who want to get to the east coast of America. But it would also open up the west coast, of course, and Hawaii as well and the rest of the Pacific," Mr Thomson said.
Mr Barr said flights to Wellington from the ACT would service a growing government and diplomatic travel market, driven by Australia's and New Zealand's efforts in the Pacific region.
"China is active in this space. Australia and New Zealand are going to be even more active. So this is serious dollars. Hundreds and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic development, aid flowing into the Pacific. It's going to come out of Canberra and Wellington," he said.
Mr Barr also confirmed Virgin had contacted his office asking not to be ruled out as a potential airline to service flights between Canberra and New Zealand.
Air New Zealand, Qantas and Virgin Australia have been contacted for comment.
Singapore Airlines cut direct flights between Canberra and Wellington last year after four years of service.
Singapore Airlines' South West Pacific Regional vice-president Philip Goh cited the impact of COVID-19 on the aviation industry as a factor in the decision.
"This decision is an extremely difficult one ... but it is necessary as we expect travel demand to remain stunted for a long period of time," Mr Goh said at the time.
Mr Barr on Tuesday said Singapore Airlines' large plane was the reason behind the cancellation of the route, and the lesson learnt was to use smaller planes with more frequent services.
"It was a 266 seat plane [flown by Singapore Airlines]. Filling a 266-seat plane four times a week - that's 1000 seats a week. That's the lesson. There were 32,500 passengers Canberra to Wellington, that's a little over 600 a week," Mr Barr said.
Meanwhile, Canberra has direct flights to every Australian capital city in the country for the first time in more than a decade.
"Our region is now being serviced by the most extensive domestic aviation network in our history, and competition between airlines is making it cheaper and easier to visit Canberra," Mr Barr said last month.
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