New Zealand start-up Pasifika Air (Christchurch) has shelved its debut indefinitely, saying delays in establishing a quarantine-free travel bubble between New Zealand and the Cook Islands had shot down its plans.

The nascent carrier, which had rebranded from Jet Raro (Christchurch), started its certification drive on December 1, 2020, hoping to launch in May or June 2021. It had aimed to begin selling tickets by March. As previously reported, it planned to use B737-800s returned to lessors by Virgin Australia (VA, Brisbane Int'l), which closed its New Zealand operations during the pandemic. The plan was for thrice-weekly services from each of Christchurch and Wellington to Rarotonga.

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Cook Islands Prime Minister Mark Brown announced last month their governments were working towards a two-way quarantine-free travel bubble by May 2021 but set no definite date. One-way quarantine-free travel between the two territories began in January 2021, without a mandatory 14-day quarantine on either side, but entry into the islands was restricted to citizens, work permit holders, and permanent residents. Meanwhile, a trans-Tasman travel bubble between New Zealand and Australia was due to open on April 19, 2021.

"The Cooks have never had COVID-19, and there is still no border reopening date, yet the travel bubble with Australia is about to open. Amid this continuing uncertainty, I have reluctantly decided now is not the time to launch Pasifika Air," owner Mike Pero told Radio New Zealand (RNZ).

Without a reopening date set in stone, Pero said it was difficult to lease aircraft because of the lead times required. "To commit three to five million in deposits and insurance just to have two-to-three aircraft sitting on the tarmac makes no commercial sense. We have been offered some very attractive propositions over the past six months, but I am not prepared to commit to NZD60 million New Zealand dollars (USD42.7 million) worth of aircraft and a five-to-ten year lease when there is so much uncertainty." Pero said his personal investment in the airline already amounted to several hundred thousand dollars.

Air New Zealand Engineering & Maintenance was also no longer able to provide maintenance for Pasifika Air as previously planned, further adding to difficulties, he added. The start-up would pay all Pasifika Air staff and contractors and commitments honoured, he said.

Despite the setback, Pero remained optimistic about the airline's future. He said 80% of work towards obtaining an Air Operator's Certificate (AOC) from the Civil Aviation Authority of New Zealand had been completed. The company had also raised three-quarters of its target funding, which left the door open to resurrecting plans should conditions change, he said.

Pero did not respond to requests for comment from ch-aviation.

“When the timing is right, Pasifika Air might well be your choice of airline. In the meantime, we’re ‘parked’ and waiting for COVID-19 to disappear and for unrestricted travel, between New Zealand and the Islands, to resume,” the company stated on its website.