New faces to the Barrier
Great Barrier Island, on the outer edge of the Hauraki Gulf and around 100km from downtown Auckland, has always had its attractions. Its air of rural remoteness, coupled with a laid-back atmosphere foreign to city dwellers, has long appealed to holidaymakers and residents wanting a quieter life.
And in recent years the island has attracted people for whom the previously quiescent Waiheke Island has become just another bustling Auckland suburb.
Great Barrier’s remoteness and consequent long sea approaches have protected it from much development, but aerial access has helped alter that, starting in the 1930s with Auckland Aero Club private and charter flights.
From the 1950s, Fred Ladd’s Tourist Air Travel provided ready access with its Grumman Widgeon amphibians, particularly welcome for their speedy response to medical emergencies. That service continued through various companies, most recently (1976–1989) Sea Bee Air under Murray Pope, until eventually helicopters took over the shorter Hauraki Gulf operations and amphibians were no longer competitive.
But there has always been an air service to Great Barrier, formalised more than 30 years ago when Jim and Ruth Bergman set up Great Barrier Airlines (GBA), starting operations on 3 December 1983 with the modest fleet of a C172 and leased C206, joined shortly afterwards by an eight-passenger de Havilland Drover. Based at Ardmore, the route included Auckland Airport and, at the island end, the larger airfield at Claris on the eastern coast, away from the sheltered western harbours serviced by the amphibians.
GBA soon prospered and the aero club pulled out, acknowledging that its operation was marginal at best and handing over the mail contract. By the end of the first year an IFR-equipped Britten-Norman Islander was added and the Ardmore service dropped, although it was later reinstated on an on-demand basis.
The airline has been through a number of fleet and structural changes, including the later return of the Bergmans for a while. Now Murray Pope has rejoined the fray, owning GBA in partnership with Graham Reynolds from September 2014.
GBA has also had its share of competitors, from both fast ferries and other aerial operators, the most enduring of which still flies the Auckland International Airport–Claris service as Fly My Sky.
And the latest started on 1 December with a return in several ways to GBA’s roots. Tauranga-based Sunair Aviation is now operating to Great Barrier Island from Tauranga, Whitianga and — yes, Ardmore. What’s more, behind the new operation is another Bergman generation.
Ryan Bergman, Jim and Ruth’s son, was working for Air Gisborne and approached Sunair directors Dan and Bev Power with a proposal for a Great Barrier service.
Concurrently, Ben Chamberlain had similar ideas and also put forward a proposal. Between them they convinced the Powers of the viability of another Barrier service which fits in with existing Sunair operations, both aircraft and pilots.
Having started in 1980, Sunair is one of the more senior, in terms of years of existence, third-level operators. As well as five C172s it has almost cornered the New Zealand Piper Aztec market with 11 active examples (four others are in mostly private hands) and, with crew bases at Tauranga, Gisborne, Hamilton, Napier, Whitianga and now Auckland, it has scheduled services to all those places plus Rotorua and Great Barrier Island.
Great Barrier and Coromandel Peninsula are not normal business destinations, and the service is aimed primarily at leisure traffic, reflected in the base fare of $120 one way between Ardmore, Whitianga and Claris, or $190 for the longer Tauranga–Claris sector.
The new Ardmore operation will include two scheduled flights a day to Great Barrier, morning and afternoon, returning after an hour on the ground. Ardmore is a long way from any public transport, but countering that is the offer of free parking and the establishment of a shuttle service to Auckland International Airport and the Papakura railway and bus connections.
“Ardmore Airport has been very supportive,” says Ryan Bergman. “We’ve had an excellent response from everybody.”
Included in that is another suggestion of déjà vu — the Auckland Aero Club. The club’s expansive premises are used for checking in and the other trappings of ground operations (without, it is hoped, having to introduce security unpleasantness), and the adjoining café adds to the overall welcoming atmosphere.
Sunair’s Aztecs are well proven for this level of scheduled operations, and with some 60,000hr experience on the fleet, engineer Dan Power knows the breed as well as anybody in this country. They are flown mostly in four-passenger configuration, with the centre right-hand seat taken out and stowed in the back, giving extra room and access to the other seats.
“It’s absolutely essential to have commonality of type,” says Dan, “from both engineering and pilot point of view.”
But as well as the current programme to install GPS and RNP technology in the fleet, Sunair might be branching out. Air New Zealand’s withdrawal from the provincial centres of Kaitaia, Whakatane and Westport leaves the field open to other operators — and without the usual heavyweight reaction of the airline to competition.
“Air New Zealand has been most cooperative,” says Dan. “They’ve delivered their statistics and are being helpful in other ways. We’re interested in Whakatane–Auckland and Kaitaia–Auckland, and we’re meeting with the local airport authorities and business people.
“With the high cost of infrastructure we’re talking to airports and Airways. It’s a major challenge facing all air transport operators.”
Sunair is still assessing demand, but the new opportunity could well spell the end of its reliance on just the two types — C172 and Aztec. Could there be a Caravan in Sunair’s future?
- Report and photographs by John King.
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