Fuel crisis: Thousands more affected by flight cancellations

by RNZ / 20 September, 2017

Air New Zealand jets have been heading to Wellington to refuel. Photo / 123RF

Another 3000 travellers heading out of Auckland will have their flights cancelled today and ticket sales will be restricted, as the airline deals with the ongoing fuel shortage.

The pipeline that supplies fuel to Auckland Airport was closed over the weekend after a leak was discovered on Thursday.

It has caused dozens of flights in and out of the city to be delayed or cancelled.

Visit Auckland Airport's website for a full list of delays and cancellations.

Up to 80,000 litres of jet fuel - or about two tanker loads - spilled from the pipeline at Ruakaka about 130km north of Auckland after it was damaged by a digger operating on a farm.

Air New Zealand has cancelled four trans-Tasman and 26 domestic flights in the past few days.

Today, five Australian services, two Fiji services and a return service to Vietnam will also be cancelled.

As well as the 3000 customers affected by cancellations today, Air New Zealand said another 6000 were expected to be inconvenienced by unexpected schedule changes.

It said further disruptions could be expected in coming days and in an "unusual step", the airline is restricting ticket sales, which includes stopping all sales on some international services.

Air New Zealand confirmed yesterday it was sending a Boeing 777-200 aircraft to Wellington with just the pilots on board to fill up and return to Auckland for further long-haul flights.

It said with fuel supplies dropping in the Pacific, it was switching to Wellington as its main fuel source.

Refining NZ said progress in fixing the pipeline was going well.

A road to the leak site in Northland has been constructed and the first of four welds on the pipeline were complete.

It said it was ready to truck jet fuel from Marsden Point in Whangarei, but the temporary truck-loading station was awaiting tankers at the refinery.

Refining NZ said an investigation into what caused the leak was under way.

Pacific airports affected

Auckland Airport said other airports in the Pacific were being affected by the fuel shortage, with airlines having to look at different options to refuel.

Chief executive Adrian Littlewood told RNZ's Checkpoint programme airlines had been stopping at airports like Nadi and Brisbane to pick up additional fuel.

"Obviously they already have their own airlines to support there, so I know all the airlines and fuel companies are looking at those different options and trying to find different methods. All of those options are being accounted for, including additional fuelling at Christchurch."

Mr Littlewood said the impacts of the shortage would likely increase before the pipe is fixed early next week.

Watch Checkpoint's interview with Adrian Littlewood here:

Public service workers told to avoid travel

In other developments yesterday, civil servants were asked to cancel all non-essential air travel in and out of Auckland due to the shortage.

The Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet today issued the directive to the entire public service.

The Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment, which is acting as the lead agency for the notice, said it was prudent the public sector was doing what it could to help airlines and fuel suppliers meet the challenges of the situation.

National Party leader Bill English said he had also told his candidates to put off any unnecessary travel.

Mr English said most of the party's candidates would be sticking to campaigns in their electorates.

"I've advised them not to do any unnecessary travel, but they should be in their electorates campaigning on Thursday and Friday. I'll be on a bus from Wellington to Auckland, so that may help by freeing up some seats on airplanes."

Auckland motorists are also being affected by the ongoing issue, although petrol stations have told motorists not to panic about a fuel shortage.

Z Energy said 13 of its stations in the city have temporarily run out of 95-octane premium fuel, but the company said more was being trucked into the city and supplies would be replenished soon.

A manager working at a BP outlet in the central city said the store had seen up to 30 percent more customers coming in to fill up in past two days.

He said some of them were very worried about the fuel shortage but there was no need to be, as there was enough stock to handle the issue.

'Not just a disruptive effect' - Goff

Auckland mayor Phil Goff has asked the government to review the safety and security of the aviation fuel pipeline, and an LPG gas pipeline which runs alongside it, through the city.

Mr Goff said people could be getting complacent about the underground lines, with the LPG having been in place for 30 years.

"When that's ruptured it can explode spontaneously and that's a risk to human life and not just a disruptive effect on the city," Mr Goff told RNZ.

He said he had written to Energy Minister Judith Collins, also suggesting larger aviation fuel storage tanks are built at Wiri, to boost the stocks available in the event of a future supply disruption.

International monitoring

The International Energy Agency is monitoring the fuel crisis in New Zealand.

The Paris-based organisation, which monitors and advises member countries on fuel and oil, said the agency was always ready to offer support if a supply interruption was "of sufficient magnitude".

"In the first instance, commercial operators find solutions to problems and if this is not possible then government is ready to assist.

"In this case [New Zealand], there is an interruption to a very specific fuel supply and local stocks, if available, are best placed to fill any supply gap. We will continue to monitor the situation."

New Zealand and 28 other countries are IEA members.

'Minimal impact' on regions

Exporters of perishable goods from the regions that usually connect to international flights out of Auckland were reported to be seeking alternatives, such as Christchurch, due to the uncertainty.

However, Air New Zealand said the impact of the fuel crisis on regions served by turboprop aircraft had been minimal at this stage.

An airline spokesperson said schedule changes had been minor, and where possible refuelling was being done at regional airports because the amount able to be taken on at Auckland Airport was limited.

This article was originally published by RNZ.

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