Air Chathams, along with Sounds Air, will from April 28 pick up regional Air services to Westport and Whakatane

Air New Zealand bowing out has given other Carriers a chance to step up.

Kawerau logging contractor Jacob Kajavala is tipping his safety helmet to Air Chathams, one of the unlikely little Airlines that he believes will help keep rural New Zealand connected.

Air Chathams, along with Sounds Air, will from April 28 pick up regional Air services to Westport and Whakatane that Air New Zealand is abandoning because it says they are uneconomic.

Air New Zealand's decision has infuriated the Westland and eastern Bay of Plenty communities.

Kajavala was one of the business owners who, along with the Whakatane District Council and the chamber of commerce, sought an operator to replace Air New Zealand on the Whakatane run.

The answer was Air Chathams, an Airline that has quietly been servicing the Chatham Islands since Mt Cook Airlines quit that service 30 years ago.

Kajalava, who regularly used Air New Zealand, said the loss of the service would have been disastrous and added "to the impetus for people and businesses to head for the major centres, which is not good for the country".

Air New Zealand, he said, had "turned its back on significant pieces of rural New Zealand and that was inappropriate. At least we have a highly acceptable plan B."

Air New Zealand's departure from the regional centres signals a shake-up, with the way being cleared for smaller Airlines to grow.

Air Chathams, with its base on the Chatham Islands, 650km east of the North Island, and Sounds Air, with its base in Picton, have become the main players in the new regional Airline industry.

Air Chathams, with three 1950 ConvAir 580, and a Metroliner, has an older fleet of twin-engine, turbo prop Aircraft flown with two Pilots. The company has 35 staff.

Sounds Air, with five 12-seater Cessna Caravans and two nine-seater Pilatus PC12, has a more modern fleet of single engine, turbo prop Aircraft operated by one Pilot. The company has 40 staff.

Both companies are highly successful and operate planes to suit their routes, according to Steve Lowe, who writes the 3rd Level New Zealand Aviation blog. "Both Airlines have a real commitment to passenger safety. And they are not start-up Airlines. They have a proven track record."

Lowe says smaller Airlines are likely to have other new opportunities to expand as Air New Zealand Link replaces its 19-seater Beech 1900 Aircraft with larger Aircraft.

Business travellers often needed same-day return flights and with Air New Zealand introducing bigger Aircraft there were likely to be fewer services and less convenient times from centres such as Hokitika, Gisborne, Whangarei, Rotorua, Palmerston North, Blenheim and Timaru. Air New Zealand is also dropping its Taupo-to-Wellington and Palmerston North-to-Nelson services.

Air Chathams boss Craig Emeny said there were clearly opportunities opening up but Airlines had to be careful about what routes to operate on.

His company had built up a fleet of Aircraft based on the requirement of the Chatham Island service which, as well as carrying passengers, also involved considerable freight, including fresh crayfish.

Emeny, an Aircraft engineer turned Pilot, started Air Chathams in the mid 1980s. While the ConvAir was "classic" it was, he said, the ideal Aircraft for the Chatham service. It was pressurised, had good fuel efficiency, could carrying a significant payload and was "the fastest prop driven commercial Aircraft in New Zealand". Aircraft maintenance was to the highest level in New Zealand, he said.

Emeny said the ConvAir was likely to be the Airline's main Aircraft for a while because there was no viable replacement.

Though the 50-seat ConvAirs were old, Emeny said most passengers were "pleasantly surprised by the experience". They were roomy, with snacks and coffee but no bar service. The two-hour 20-minute flight from Auckland to the Chathams is New Zealand's longest domestic flight.

The Chatham passenger service catered for the service sector, including police and hospitals, as well as the island's 650 residents. Tourism was small but significant, and kept the island's 90 beds full.

The decision to expand from Chathams and to operate a mainland New Zealand service had been simple. The company operates a high-end charter service from Auckland "so when the Whakatane service came up it made sense for us because we had the base and the Aircraft there too".

Air Chathams has not set its fares for the Whakatane flight but Emeny said the structure would be similar to Air New Zealand's with an average price around $170.

Sounds Air, which has taken over the Wellington-to-Westport service from Air New Zealand, is now New Zealand's biggest domestic Airline outside of Air New Zealand and its Air New Zealand Link subsidiaries.

The company started in 1986, operating from Wellington to its own private Airfield near Picton.

It carries 65,000 passengers a year operating services to Nelson, Picton, Paraparaumu, Whanganui, Wellington and Blenheim, with Westport about to start.

The key to Sounds Air success has been sticking to a known market and operating it well, said Andrew Crawford, Sounds Air's general manager and part owner.

"Flying across Cook Strait is our niche," he said. "We cater for the business market and we have built up a loyal fan base. Once they get on they don't tend to get off."

With Sounds Air, customers from Wellington to Blenheim, the key route, paid one fare. "One day, one week, one year in advance, it is always the same price, $99."

New routes were hard to pick but the company had opened six new services in the past 10 years.

While passenger numbers on the Whanganui to Wellington service that Sounds Air took over from Air New Zealand a year ago "could be better", Sounds Air was optimistic about Wellington to Westport, buying two Pilatus PC12 to service the route and for charter work.

The planes, which are pressurised and capable of Flying to 30,000 feet, are being refurbished with new engines, propellers, updated avionics and interiors.

Crawford said Air New Zealand did a great job but there were "some routes that are just not viable to them".

Sounds Air will charge a flat fare of $199 for the Wellington to Westport service. Air New Zealand sells advance tickets for as low as $55 but the price rises to more than $400 for late tickets on busy flights.

Two other regional Airlines also Fly scheduled operations servicing multiple regional centres. Sun Air operating out of Tauranga has a hub in the central North Island. The company, owned by husband and wife Dan and Bev Power, Fly 10 six-seater Piper Aztec Aircraft with services linking Hamilton, Tauranga, Rotorua, Napier, Gisborne, Whitianga, Great Barrier and Auckland's Ardmore Airports.

Great Barrier Airlines operates from Auckland to Great Barrier Island and to the Coromandel. It also has a seasonal service from Great Barrier to Whangarei.


A World War II DC3 is to be used on a special "classic" scheduled passenger service between Whakatane and Auckland.

It will be one of only two passenger services using DC3 Aircraft in the world.

The only other scheduled DC3 flight is the 200 kilometre trip between Yellow Knife and Hay River in Canada's Northwest Territories.

Air Chathams, who take over the Auckland-to-Whakatane service from Air New Zealand in late April, plan to use the former RNZAF Aircraft for what owner Craig Emery calls a "classic" flight.

It would operate a return service once a week, probably on a weekend.

"We'll advertise that it is the DC3 so people will know what they are booking on," said Emery.

"We can't have our regular business customers turning up and getting a surprise - though it would probably be an enjoyable surprise."

The plane, which has been rebuilt by Air Chathams, was previously used on scheduled flights in Tonga. That service drew customers from the United States and Europe who came just to Fly on the service linking Tonga's main island Tongatapu with the Ha'apai group.

Emery said the tourists "were annoyed when they didn't get on it [the DC3]".

He hoped there would be a similar attraction to the Auckland-to-Whakatane service.

The DC3 was a safe, reliable Aircraft maintained to New Zealand civil Aviation standards and was "nice to Fly in," he said. Operating the service "would be fun".

Small Airlines rise to the challenge as Air NZ bows out

Both companies are highly successful and operate planes to suit their routes, according to Steve Lowe, who writes the 3rd Level New Zealand Aviation blog. "Both Airlines have a real commitment to passenger safety. And they are not start-up Airlines.
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