* New Zealand fuel shortage causes travel disruption
* Thirty-nine flights cancelled - Air NZ
* Govt officials asked to avoid travel (Updates number of flight cancellations, adds detail on Air New Zealand restricting ticket sales and cargo)
By Ana Nicolaci da Costa
WELLINGTON, Sept 19 (Reuters) - New Zealand’s jet fuel shortage on Tuesday forced 39 flights to be cancelled, 13 of them international, with concerns the fuel crisis may spread after fuel stations in the country’s largest city Auckland halted high-octane gasoline sales.
The fuel shortage, caused by a damaged pipeline to Auckland Airport, has caused widespread disruption to air travel since the weekend and comes only days before Saturday’s national election with infrastructure shortages a hotly contested issues.
New Zealand’s military, which cancelled an exercise with Singapore to save fuel, was trucking fuel supplies around the country in an attempt to ease the shortage and government officials have been asked to avoid non-essential air travel.
Air New Zealand said on Tuesday it was beginning to refuel long-haul aircraft at the international airport in the capital Wellington. Flights to and from Auckland have stopped at airports in Australia and Pacific islands like Fiji to refuel.
The airline said in a statement it was restricting its ticket sales, which it called an “unusual step”, and that it would not accept any last-minute cargo, except for important medical equipment.
New Zealand’s largest fuel supplier Z Energy said on Tuesday that gasoline for some high-end cars was not available at 13 of its fuel stations in Auckland, according to a spokesman.
“While air travel will continue to be affected until the pipeline is fully operational, the fuel industry has advised government that impacts on petrol and diesel supply for motorists are minimal,” said Judith Collins, New Zealand’s Minister of Energy and Resources.
The government has come under criticism for what has been deemed an infrastructure failure as it faces a tight contest with the newly invigorated Labour Party.
The damaged pipeline is owned by New Zealand Refining and the company has told local media that initial investigations showed a digger had scraped the pipe.
“The fact that one digger can cause our international travel to be ground to a halt shows how vulnerable that infrastructure was and the National government ignored that,” Labour leader Jacinda Ardern said on Monday.
New Zealand’s air traffic control provider Airways said on its website it was implementing fuel conservation measures, which involve organising airplane landing and take-offs in such a way as to minimise the amount of time they spend in the air to save fuel. It expects up to 10 days of disruptions to passengers.
A spokesman for New Zealand Refining told Reuters on Monday the pipeline was closed for repairs and was expected to return to 70 percent capacity by Sept. 24 to 26. (Reporting by Ana Nicolaci da Costa; additional reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; Editing by Michael Perry and Christian Schmollinger)