Resumption of international travel ‘on the right track’, says Auckland Airport CEO

Carrie Hurihanganui has been making the most of international travel since the New Zealand border reopened this year.

In October, Hurihanganui was appointed Auckland International Airport’s first female chief executive in its 55-year history, succeeding Adrian Littlewood who spent nine years in the role.

Since making his debut in February, the former Air New Zealand executive has traveled to Singapore, Japan and the United States as part of New Zealand trade delegations led by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

She found the travel processes in Singapore and Japan “very smooth”, and in the United States she found the pre-Covid queues to be “alive and healthy”.

The main difference from the pre-Covid era is that travelers need to be better prepared before their trip, ensuring they have completed all necessary documentation and meet travel and entry requirements. a destination, she says.

“Once you’ve done that, the rest of the trip largely follows what it was before Covid,” says Hurihanganui.

“It’s really like riding a bike.”

She says the need for travelers to provide proof of vaccination will exist for some time.

Auckland International Airport chief executive Carrie Hurihanganui said international travel was gradually picking up and airline capacity was down.

LAWRENCE SMITH / Stuff

Auckland International Airport chief executive Carrie Hurihanganui said international travel was gradually picking up and airline capacity was “on the right track”.

Like most aviation businesses, Auckland Airport has been hit hard by Covid-19, with passenger numbers dropping by up to 95%.

It has taken a number of measures to weather the pandemic, including raising $1.2 billion in funding and suspending projects with a combined value of more than $2 billion.

Hurihanganui says that in 2019 there were 29 airlines serving 43 destinations. During the pandemic, it fell on a dozen airlines and 20 destinations.

But air capacity is gradually returning and by the end of this year it should have 22 airlines serving 36 destinations, she says.

At the moment, traffic is around 35% of pre-Covid levels, and by December it should be close to 70%, she says.

“It’s on the right track.

“I joke that my timing was impeccable with the borders opening within a month of leaving.”

Despite tough economic conditions, international travel is rebounding globally and domestically, she says.

“Even with all of these pressures that we see around the world and in New Zealand, there is this pent-up demand.”

In some overseas markets, international travel is up to 85% of pre-Covid levels, she says.

“That last 15% or so takes longer.”

The question now is whether growth will be sustained, but booking patterns for next year suggest this is more than just a short-term trend, she says.

“Certainly the bookings we are seeing continue to increase week on week.”

Passenger numbers at Auckland International Airport are at around 35% of pre-Covid levels, but are gradually increasing.

LAWRENCE SMITH / Stuff

Passenger numbers at Auckland International Airport are at around 35% of pre-Covid levels, but are gradually increasing.

Born in the United States, Hurihanganui moved to New Zealand 32 years ago while on vacation.

The mother-of-two began her career with Air New Zealand as a flight attendant in 1999 and worked there for the next 21 years, most recently in the role of Chief Operating Officer where she managed a workforce of more than 6,000 people.

“Obviously I must be an aviation junkie.”

Understanding how airlines think and operate will be invaluable in her new role, along with her knowledge of traveler, supplier and government expectations, she says.

This is her first job as chief executive, and she says her ambition is to build a better airport that meets the needs of New Zealanders and keeps the country connected to the world.

Before Covid-19 arrived, the airport was focused on achieving a 30-year vision to create an airport of the future, which featured eight “flagship projects”, including a merged international and domestic terminal, and a second track.

Hurihanganui says the master plan is still broadly sound, but some projects will have different timelines and elements to be refined, she said.

Some anchor projects are complete or under construction, but things like the second runway will be “a demand product,” depending on how the aviation sector recovers, she says.

“It’s about working with the airlines to say what their growth forecasts are over the next 10 years.”

Sustainability will be an important part of the airport’s future as airlines, particularly Air New Zealand, seek to migrate to zero-emission aircraft and sustainable aviation fuel, she says.

“They can’t do it alone, so it’s really critical that we understand that path and that the infrastructure we plan can take that into account.”

The airport’s near-term growth will come from restoring a core network it had before the pandemic, she says.

Beyond that, she expects demand for point-to-point travel to grow as travelers increasingly seek to avoid layovers.

Airlines are reassessing their networks and how they use planes, but capacity constraints pose a challenge, after airlines retired their planes earlier or put them in storage when the pandemic hit, she says.

Some manufacturers have also halted production during the pandemic, leading to delays in deliveries of new aircraft, she says.

“Demand is outstripping supply, but that will even out over time.”

New Zealand’s remoteness means airlines flying long-haul here need to ensure their planes are well used, she says.

This becomes even more pronounced when the cost of fuel is high, and therefore airlines will need to ensure that they can attract enough passengers to justify an itinerary, she says.

“This means the economy of routes changes and looks different when fuel is a base cost.”

However, she thinks airlines are looking beyond the immediate impact of high fuel costs.

“Because after two years without theft, it is necessary to restore their network. They kind of have this balancing act that they’re going to work on.

Covid-19 has brought the aviation industry closer together and taught companies how to respond and adapt quickly, she says.

“Covid has meant everyone has had to come together and collaborate and work together in a really constructive way.”

Maintaining that will be important, she said.

Aeronautical charges have long been a point of tension between airports and airlines. In January, Auckland Airport announced it would freeze aviation charges for a year in response to the uncertainty created by Covid-19.

In the past, Hurihanganui had come to aeronautical pricing from an airline perspective, but now the shoe is on the other foot, and she will have to negotiate with former Air New Zealand colleagues over what the airport should charge the airlines.

Hurihanganui is pragmatic, saying they won’t agree on everything all the time.

“But you can disagree without being disagreeable.”

Hurihanganui says her favorite airport is Changi in Singapore, and she’s not afraid to “steal ideas with pride.”

“They have customer experience, digital, technology and innovation. They’re doing a good job.”

She wants to make Auckland Airport an experience that passengers enjoy rather than just a way to get to their destination.

“It just made it simple, easy, transparent.”