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By Ulamila Kurai-Marrie

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Jan. 4) - Talks are underway between Air Rarotonga and French Polynesia's Air Tahiti regarding a possible code-sharing of the leg between the two neighboring regional countries from next April.

This follows approval by their respective countries to grant a license to operate the leg that will be left void by Air New Zealand from next April when it halts its three weekly flights between the two countries.

Air New Zealand's decision to halt three weekly 234-seat Los Angeles-Papeéte-Rarotonga-Auckland flights from April 1 will leave a gap that the two airlines are now trying to fill.

Air Rarotonga's managing director Ewan Smith, who heads the Cook Islands' only domestic airline, confirmed that cabinet had given his company the green light to service the route to Tahiti.

"We applied for the license after Air New Zealand announced it was withdrawing from flying this route and cabinet granted us that," Smith said.

Early this month French Polynesia's president Oscar Temaru granted Air Tahiti approval to start up two weekly Papeéte-Rarotonga flights on April 1 with a 59-seat ATR-72 aircraft.

The negotiation between the two companies is the only hope that the two countries have links by air. Each country will have to grant approval to the other airline to land on their turf and given that both airlines have the backing of their respective governments, discussions are continuing.

Smith is positive about the talks with Air Tahiti.

"They have a bigger plane while our Saab is a 34-seater one and that's why we are negotiating to code-share with them. We are bringing in another Saab though in the new year."

Air New Zealand is planning a weekly direct service between Los Angeles and Rarotonga subject to a risk sharing deal with the Cook Islands government that is still to be worked out.

Cook Islands Tourism has been optimistic all along that Air Rarotonga would take over the route because the loss of the Tahiti connection is a concern for the Cook Islands.

At only 500 miles away, Tahiti has the potential to become a 'star route' for Air Rarotonga, Smith told Cook Islands News when Air New Zealand made its first announcement.

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