TOUCHDOWN: The first flight from Auckland to Newcastle arrives on Thursday night. It hit the tarmac about 8.45pm. Picture: Peter StoopNEWCASTLE Airport is no longer an aspiring international airport, it is one.
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But not without a few hiccups.

The first international flight from Auckland to Newcastle was delayed due to nearby bushfires, but it landed at the airport before 9pm on Thursday.

Then thefirst outbound flight to Auckland –flight VA199 – was delayedand then cancelled close to 11pm due to “technical difficulties”.

Passengers were told the plane needed to bechecked after a lightning strike during its earlier flight.

The outbound flight wasrescheduled to leave Newcastle Airportat 12.15pm Friday.

A Virgin spokesperson said the safety of passengers and crew was theirnumber one priority.

“Virgin flight VA198 from Newcastle to Auckland was delayed last night after it was struck by lightning before landing safely in Newcastle,” they said.

“Aircraft are designed to withstand and continue to fly safely when struck by lightning, however it is standard operating procedure that the aircraft is checked by an engineer after landing. The aircraft has now been cleared to return to service.

“We apologise for any inconvenience this may have caused.”

Newcastle Airport chief executive Peter Cock said the local Virgin crew worked tirelessly to source accommodation for all the passengers that required a bed on Thursday night.

“Understandably there is always high levels of occupancy for accommodation across the region when big events are being held, such as the V8 Supercars,” he said.

Despite the problems, the Hunter is now officiallyhome to the state’s second international airport.

The flights –the first servicing Aucklandin 16 years –mark thebeginning of a 13-week seasonal service operated by Virgin .

Prior to the problems, Dr Cock had said the official opening of the international gates wasa “momentous” occasion for the greater Hunter region, and the fruition of years of planning, persistence and patience.

“The significance of this iswhat it is going to do for the Newcastle region in terms of visitor economy,” he said.

“Our modelling suggests it is going to add over$6 million of value into the economy that we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. That is significant for local businesses, and it starts fromthat international traffic.”

Passengers were welcomed into the $1.6 million international processing facilities for the first time on Thursday evening.

“It is something the airport has been aspiring to, and working towards, for many years,” Dr Cock said.

“We are no longer an aspiring international airport, we are an international airport.”

Passengers on-board the Boeing 737-800 from Auckland were welcomed by local tourism,industry and government representatives after it arrived about8.45pm.

Annette Piercy was on the first flight from Auckland.

She said she was keen to see what the region hadto offer “Kiwi travellers”.

“This is a business trip to explore the region, and to see what experiences we can share with our New Zealand customers,” Ms Piercy said.

“If you want to go to the Hunter Valley or Port Stephens for the weekend, the direct flight makes this very accessible.”

Virgin will offer three direct international services between Auckland and Newcastle per week until February 17, 2019, withDr Cock predictingit couldbring up to6500 extra visitors to the region.

Theservice will operate over the peak holiday period with direct flights available every Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday until February 17.

“There has been really good collaboration between the tourism organisations within theregion,” Dr Cock said. “It has captured the imagination of people in the region, and it has brought everyone together with a common purpose for a common cause.”

Ittakes a lot of work to get an airline over the line. But it was something we knew the region needed, and something the people in theregion wanted.”

If the service proves successful in the next 13 weeks, it may continue.

“If we can make this work, I think it will give a lot of confidence to other airlines that people from the region will fly out of their own airport,” he said. “It is important that people use it. The more profitable it is, the more wecan start to try and get more aircraft times.”