Gordon’s Campbell on Auckland’s dysfunctional mayor, and air travel chaos

ff96d1fbf52c8b5755bfAs Auckland’s cantankerous mayor stumbles from one crisis to the next, the hope is not that Wayne Brown will learn on the job – that’s almost certainly a lost cause – but that Aucklanders will manage to come together and limit the damage that he threatens to inflict on the city over the remainder of his term.

The pushback, of course, will have to start with the 2023/24 budget plan. To be blunt, only an idiot would be proposing to sell the Council’s stake in Auckland airport (a) just after the airport has announced a massive $3.9 billion redevelopment plan (b) just when air travel is recovering after the pandemic and (c) just when investors are flocking back in, as the business pages of the NZ Herald recently reported:

Among the earnings highlights was Auckland Airport. Its profits have continued to recover, and guidance was lifted. Interim underlying earnings went back into the black, with a profit of $68 million, and revenue more than doubled. January passenger numbers returned to 73 percent of pre-Covid levels. No dividends were paid, but these could be back on deck in October.

The airport could get a further boost as Chinese tourists and airlines in particular return and capacity is lifted on US services. New Zealand has also been named as one of 20 countries open to Chinese travel agencies and tour operators. The airport company sees passengers returning to pre-Covid levels during 2025.

Yet thanks to Brown, the people of Auckland appear doomed to lose their share of the revenue gains from the airport recovery/expansion, because the mayor seems to be hellbent on selling the family silver. As FIRST Union president Robert Reid acknowledged earlier this week, Auckland airport had struggled during the pandemic. “But immediately selling shares in an entity whose revenue tripled between 2014 and 2019 would be uniquely stupid and short-sighted.”

Reid also cited the $21 million in cuts to Auckland’s bus services as another lowlight of the city’s 2023/24 budget plan, especially at a time “when drivers’ wages are finally rising and recruitment and retention is our top priority…”

For reasons of political expedience, rate increases have been kept to a minimum while the facilities on which vulnerable members of the community depend are destined to be cut back, if not axed entirely. Reid again:

In [Brown’s] desperation to avoid even minor rates rises, the poorest and most vulnerable Aucklanders would subsidise the richest through extensive cuts to community services like libraries and Citizens Advice Bureaus. Economic and social development funding for a better Auckland would be axed…. Meanwhile, under Brown’s Budget, 13 Council-owned golf courses would survive at a net annual cost of $160 million to taxpayers – it’s about priorities, and this becomes clearer throughout.”

The mayor’s fixation with keeping the 535 hectares of prime Auckland land that the Council currently devotes to golf courses has been remarked on before. An ironic ‘thank you’ was recently offered by one of the few Aucklanders who stand to benefit from the mayor’s highly selective pruning of the city’s outgoings:

I’m one of a small, privileged group who is able to enjoy relatively exclusive access to the $2.9 billion worth of land that’s either owned or managed by council for golf. It’s strangely comforting knowing that my weird addiction for hitting a small white ball into a tin-lined cup around manicured fields is so favoured by our city’s decision makers that it continues to avoid any kind of budgetary scrutiny from bureaucratic number crunchers.

Brown’s priorities are indefensible. Sell the revenue generating airport shares just as they regain their value? Cut back on libraries, but don’t touch the deadweight $2.9 billion of Council land devoted to golf, along with the $160 million net annual cost of maintaining those greens and fairways in tip top condition? Ultimately, the only rationale for keeping some of those golf facilities is the same one that used to be applied to Donald Trump i.e. the more time the mayor can be encouraged to spend playing golf or tennis, the less damage he can do while actually being at work.

Crush to Judgement

Talking of air travel, and the “feral” conditions being experienced by international travellers on arrival in this country…. Credible explanations have been in short supply. The best explanation on offer is that pre-Covid, more planes were arriving but only at staggered intervals. Now, fewer planes are arriving, but since they’re full or at near capacity, this means that hordes of passengers are being disgorged all at once. The crowds of arrivals have been overwhelming the airport’s capacity to process them in a timely fashion.

Obviously… For long haul fliers in particular, this is not a happy introduction to New Zealand. Ever since the pandemic struck in 2020, the government and the tourism industry have indicated that New Zealand aims to turn its back on mass tourism, and is trying instead to attract the kind of travellers willing to pay top dollar for a quality experience. Clearly, the “feral” situation on arrival is the exact opposite. No wonder the levels of frustration in the arrival lounges are running at an all-time high.

New Zealand can’t afford to earn a reputation for incompetence at the border. This country is already seen to be a high cost destination. It is expensive to get here, and once visitors have landed, the prices here for food, accommodation and domestic travel are daunting, despite the big bang for the buck that the US dollar delivers against our own low currency.

Without visibly trying, it seems that New Zealand is pricing itself out of the mass tourism market. Concerns have been expressed about the pressures that the pre-Covid tourist hordes were putting on our prime attractions. Yet if very high prices are to become the norm, then quality service is the other necessary part of the equation, starting at the border.

Sky high prices

The chaos in the arrival lounges is indicative of a wider problem. Yes, Covid has created staff shortages in crucial areas of air travel that are taking time to rebuild. Yet some airlines have also been guilty of using that excuse to jack up ticket prices by deliberately scheduling fewer flights, and then relying on pent up demand to sustain the high price regime.

We know this because a few airline CEOs have had the gall to say so out loud. Earlier this month, Deutsche Lufthansa AG boss Carsten Spohr said that the airline wouldn’t be rushing to add more aircraft capacity despite surging passenger demand, because high yields “are just too much fun.”

To remove any doubt about what he meant, Spohr made it crystal clear:

“Capacities will remain limited for many years ahead while at the same time demand continues to increase,” Spohr said. “This is something we and the industry have been waiting for.”

Spohr’s comments were echoed by United Airlines boss Scott Kirby, who said the airline industry is set for “structurally higher” profit margins.

“The system simply can’t handle the volume today, much less the anticipated growth,” he told investors in January. Calling the supply-demand dynamics “different than they’ve ever been in my career,” he declared it a “once in a history of the industry opportunity.”

Thanks to the greed and candour of airline CEO, at least we need wonder no longer about the virtual disappearance of the cheap fares that used to be so common, pre-Covid. There are some hopeful signs that the worst of the ticket price hikes may be over, but ticket prices are still expected to stabilise at above pre-Covid levels.

Music as exorcism

These days, the words “survivor” and “resilient” are tossed around readily. Yet at 73, the self-taught sculptor, conceptual artist and musician Lonnie Holley is still being haunted by night terrors from the childhood he spent in the notorious Alabama Industrial School for Negro Children at Mount Meigs, Alabama. Basicially, this was a child labour slave camp marked by relentless overwork, physical beatings and sexual abuse.

On his fourth album Oh Me, Oh My Holley confronts some of those demons. This is one of the rare albums where the excellent star cameos (by Sharon Van Etten, Bon Iver, Michael Stipe etc) do not dominate the proceedings.

The album’s title track for example, is a lovely lament, well served by Stipe’s backing vocals:

The album’s key track is simply called “Mount Meigs.” It is a modern protest song, and a reminder that the effects of child abuse can last a lifetime.