An announcement today that Singapore Airlines has canned its route to Canberra is a stark admission that there is not enough demand for international flights out of Wellington, say those concerned about the ongoing spending of ratepayer and taxpayer money on the venture.

Guardians of the Bays, representing more than 600 community and ratepayer organisations and concerned individuals, is concerned that public money has been used to subsidise the route despite it being obvious for some time that it was not successful.

Guardians of the Bays Co-Chair Richard Randerson said it was no surprise that Singapore Airlines was pulling the plug on the Wellington – Canberra – Singapore route.

Despite spending at least $3 million dollars of ratepayer money to promote the route, publicly available loading data clearly shows that the route achieved less than a 50 percent passenger loading. That is great if you like lots of seats on your plane, but it isn’t great for ratepayers who have been subsidising this route for more than a year – for no discernible benefit. Canberra has a similar-sized population to Wellington, and if Canberra cannot muster a payload, it is unlikely Wellington can do anything better.

Latest figures from international monitoring sites show the much touted Capital Express – or Wellington to Canberra flights – have not been working. The latest figures from the Australian Government’s Department of Infrastructure and Regional Development show that in August 2017, the Singapore Airlines Wellington to Canberra flight had an average passenger load factor of 128 passengers per flight (based on 16 return services). That is a load factor of 48 percent.

Further figures show that international passenger traffic at Wellington Airport was up only 1.9 percent in the 12 months to September 2017, with Australian visitors actually down 2.2 percent in the same period.

Wellington Airport has tried desperately to stack up its claims that there will be an economic benefit from the proposed airport extension for Wellington without success. It has drawn down significant amounts of ratepayer funding for its Environment Court application and for the Singapore Airlines subsidy and promotion.

“There is already evidence that the proposal is likely to cost much more than the $350m originally suggested, up to $500m according to one expert.

“The proposed airport extension is not about what is good for Wellington. It is about what is good for Wellington Airport and its multi-billion dollar owner Infratil.

Co-chair Dr Sea Rotmann said it was time for the Mayor and Councillors of Wellington City to cut their losses on the proposed airport extension and move on.

In a meeting with Wellington Mayor Justin Lester, shortly after he was elected last year, he was clear that the Council’s support of the Wellington Airport extension was dependent on demand for the route.

This change of route proves that Wellington Airport and Singapore Airlines are scrambling to find a route that works economically.  It is a shame that Singapore Airlines has got caught up in this debacle as it has an excellent brand but appears to have been captured by vested interests.

“It is time for our community leaders to follow the Government’s lead and focus on spending that improves the lives of Wellingtonians and all New Zealanders, not just the few,” she said.

Singapore Airlines launched Singapore-Canberra-Wellington flights in September. (Paul Sadler)

Singapore Airlines’s new service to Canberra and Wellington has featured plenty of empty seats during its first months of operations, new figures suggest.

According to the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) monthly report on international airline passenger and freight numbers, SIA’s flights between Singapore and Canberra were roughly half full in October, the first full month the route has been in service since it launched on September 20.

However, the Canberra-Wellington leg has not been as well patronised, with only a quarter of the seats filled.

The BITRE data indicated SIA carried 2,599 inbound passengers from Singapore to Canberra in the month of October, when it operated 18 flights.

Given flight SQ291 is operated by Boeing 777-200s configured with 38 angled life-flat business class and 228 economy class seats for a total seat count of 266, the BITRE data suggested SIA’s average load factor on Singapore-Canberra was 54.3 per cent.

Meanwhile, the reciprocal SQ292 carried 2,011 passengers from Canberra to Singapore in October, which represented an average load factor of 44.5 per cent.

The Singapore-Canberra-Wellington rotation, which the Star Alliance member dubs the “Capital Express”, operates four times a week.

It is the first scheduled international passenger service to Canberra more than a decade after the short-lived Air Pacific (now Fiji Airways) flights to Nadi ended in 2004.

The flight also links the capitals of New Zealand and Australia for the first time. However, passenger numbers of the Canberra-Wellington leg were lower than that of Canberra-Singapore.

The BITRE data showed SIA carried 1,163 passengers from Canberra to Wellington in October, which represented an average of 65 passengers per flight for an average load factor of 24.3 per cent.

The return Wellington-Canberra service averaged 68 passengers per flight, which represented a load factor of 25.5 per cent.

It is worth noting a December 2016 report in The Canberra Times indicated the BITRE figures do not include passengers travelling from Wellington to Singapore and beyond via Canberra, or travellers headed to Wellington from Singapore via Canberra.

Indeed, the report quoted Singapore Airlines ACT manager Tan Chin Yu saying: “We have been encouraged by the support from the local community since we went on sale in January and remain pleased with the number of customers choosing to travel on the new service, both to Singapore and beyond with direct connections to UK/Europe.

“There has been a good mix of business and leisure travellers in both the business and economy class cabins,” he told the newspaper.

Canberra is SIA’s sixth destination in Australia alongside Adelaide, Brisbane, Melbourne, Perth and Sydney. The airline group’s regional wing Silkair also serves Cairns and Darwin with narrowbody equipment.

The Virgin Australia shareholder and alliance partner is adding more flights to Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney in 2017.

SIA has also boosted its premium passenger offering with a new SilverKris lounge at Brisbane Airport.

Overall, the BITRE figures showed SIA had an average load factor of 89 per cent for its flights to Australia and 77.9 per cent for its flights out of Australia in October.

The BITRE data for the first full month of SIA’s Canberra operation suggests the passenger numbers will take some time to build up, given Singapore and Wellington are new nonstop markets for the city and that the route was first launched in January, meaning the figures represented the efforts of about seven months of marketing and promoting the new route.

However, there will be more international seats to fill out of Canberra from as early as the second half of calendar 2017, with Qatar Airways planning to launch service to the Australian capital.

In November, Qatar named Canberra as one of eight new destinations being added to its fast-growing network.

The oneworld alliance member indicated flights to Canberra would begin some time in the 2017/18 timeframe, without providing any further details, such as frequencies and operating aircraft type.

The Australian capital would be Qatar’s fifth destination in this country. It currently serves Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne and Sydney nonstop from its Doha hub.

Canberra Airport managing director Stephen Byron said discussions were ongoing with a number of other Australian and overseas airlines about international flights, which could lead to a new service starting before Qatar begins its operations to Canberra.

“We always thought there would be a race to be first to be second if you like,” Byron told reporters at Canberra Airport on November 29.

“We’ve been talking to the other Middle Eastern hub carriers, to the other Asian hub carriers and also to the Chinese airlines about direct flights.

“It is possible that an airline could announce a service to a different route that might commence before that time.”

The BITRE report showed SIA carried 74.4 tonnes of freight into Canberra in October, with 34.7 tonnes of cargo taken to Singapore. There was negligible freight between Canberra and Wellington.