Sounds of activity
Air New Zealand’s pulling out of several regional routes, announced last year and taking effect a few short months later as it winds down its subsidiary Eagle Air, has led to a flurry of activity among several established smaller operators as they have endeavoured to fill the gaps and also create new routes. These are quite apart from Jetstar’s new Q-300 operations, starting this month and in February on what might be termed the lesser main trunk routes to major provincial centres.
Barrier Air, with name changed from the original 1983 Great Barrier Airlines earlier this year, has expanded northwards from its Auckland and North Shore bases into Northland as far as Kaitaia, in addition to its established routes to the Bay of Plenty, Coromandel Peninsula and Great Barrier Island.
Air North Shore started in late September between North Shore, Tauranga and Kerikeri with a Piper Navajo but lasted only a few weeks before shutting down through lack of passenger numbers.
Air Chathams, long established to serve the Chatham Islands from Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch, has relocated its subsidiary Chathams Pacific fleet after being pushed out of Tonga by political and Chinese machinations. In addition to its internal freight and charter operations, the airline has welcomed the opportunity to further utilise some of those airliners on the Auckland–Whakatane service (see page 15 this issue) and reports excellent support from the eastern Bay of Plenty.
Blenheim-based Sounds Air is the third established regional airline to branch out as Eagle Airways fades into oblivion, taking over the Wellington–Taupo and Wellington–Westport services as well as establishing a new Blenheim–Napier route between the country’s two top wine growing centres.
Communities on either side of Cook Strait, that great natural divide between New Zealand’s two main islands, have been served by more than 20 airlines, starting 80 years ago with Cook Strait Airways between Nelson, Wellington and Blenheim. The majority of those airlines have come and gone for various reasons, most of them financial, but airline schedules and prices still compete well with the even longer established ferry services between Wellington and Picton.
Sounds Air’s roots go back 32 years, to November 1983 when commercial pilots Cliff Marchant and David Phillips set up Outdoor Aviation, one of the last organisations to be granted consent to operate by the Air Services Licensing Authority before the new “open skies” policy. The pair had identified a niche market, flying Wellington-based owners of baches dotted about the Marlborough Sounds into a variety of airstrips and using a pair of Cessnas, a 185 and a 172.
Ever optimistic, they soon placed an order for a Cessna Caravan, a type still to be certified, and developed the topdressing airstrip at Koromiko, south of Picton, with an eye on potential Interislander ferry passenger traffic that might like to pay a slightly higher fare for the convenience of reduced crossing times. To cope with increasing business ahead of the Caravan delivery, the company used a C206 and C207 under the name Skyferry, but while Cliff has remained in this country and is currently an Air NZ B777 captain, David departed in mid-1984 in pursuit of a Hong Kong-based airline flying career.
Two Caravans, ZK-SFA owned by the company and ZK-SFB leased, started Cook Strait operations in November 1985 as the first of type in the southern hemisphere and, at around $1.5m each, a major investment. Both were fully equipped for IFR flight, but the very thought of IFR passenger operations with a single engine was anathema to the CAD, although it was permissible when carrying only freight, and Skyferry developed appropriate procedures and pilot discipline.
The authorities’ views on single-engine operations were not helped by the January 1986 fatal crash of the company’s C207 at Koromiko after engine failure on a private flight—ironically preventable had the CAA’s own airworthiness directives procedures been sufficiently robust—and they were not to be swayed. That year the growing and diversifying company was reorganised, with Paul Robinson joining as managing director and Cliff, still maintaining his financial interest, moving his family to Port Gore in the Marlborough Sounds.
Although the original owners’ intention had been centred on competing with the ferries and servicing the sounds, Paul introduced flights to Blenheim using a leased Britten-Norman Islander—IFR permitted with its two engines—followed shortly by Beechcraft Queen Air Excalibur ZK-SFC.
The Beech was also used for a short-lived passenger service between Wellington and Chatham Island before Skyferry concentrated on more local scheduled freight and passenger services. Caravan ZK-SFB was lost with both occupants in November 1987 off the Kaikoura Coast on a night freight flight, attributed to icing although that was later disputed by Cliff in the light of fresh evidence. Around the same time he gained a separate air service certificate in his own name, trading as Soundsair, to operate charter services to and from the Marlborough Sounds.
Islanders became the predominant type on the Koromiko (Picton) service which thrived to the extent that the first year’s 9500 passengers had grown to more than 40,000 in the financial year to 31 March 1988. Paul Robinson departed after some unauthorised financial transactions caused a disagreement with his fellow directors, and continuing CAA intransigence over single-engine IFR led to the cancellation of plans to buy another Caravan and attention turned instead to Britten-Norman Trislanders.
End of Skyferry
The introduction of the two Trislanders, replacing the Queen Air and the lost Caravan, was not without its own certification problems, but they started on the routes between Wellington, Picton and Blenheim in April 1990. The delay, however, caused more expense than Skyferry could cope with and in July 1991 the company was placed in receivership.
The receiver said Skyferry had appeared to have lost its way, changing from a niche carrier offering cheap and quick Cook Strait crossings to an airline challenging others for Wellington to Blenheim passengers. “They missed their market.”
Cliff Marchant was proud of the fact that his Skyferry brainchild had carried over a quarter of a million fare-paying passengers with zero harm—although Islander ZK-SFE, operating under the Soundsair name, crashed into the sea at Tiraora Lodge in Pelorus Sound in March 1989 after a misjudged overshoot, injuring the pilot and five passengers.
In January 1992 a group of investors, including Cliff and Diane Marchant, bought the Picton facility at Koromiko from the Skyferry receivers. Under general manager Barry Hvid, Soundsair soon began scheduled services from Wellington as well as continuing charter flights to the airstrips in the sounds. The flagship was once again Caravan ZK-SFA, now leased, and backed by a Partenavia P6B, the Marchants’ own C185 and Barry Hvid’s Lake amphibian.
The mid-1990s saw expansion into freight services as well as additions to the fleet in the form of another Cessna Caravan, an Aero Commander and a C206. Services further afield were tried, most of them successfully.
Canada had authorised single-engine IFR operations in 1992, but despite growing worldwide awareness of its safety benefits and years of lobbying effort by Cliff and Barry, the CAANZ refused to budge. Ironically, what precipitated action—after a rather fraught time and the airline’s darkest hour—was a fatal VFR accident.
Caravan ZK-SFA collided with the lower slopes of Mt Robinson on 29 January 1996 with the loss of all five passengers, although the pilot survived. He was well aware that conditions at Koromiko were clear, but a moist southeasterly banked clouds against the hills on the approach from Wellington. Commercial VFR flight is precluded over more than 4/8ths cloud, so as it thickened from scattered conditions in the Port Underwood area, and having to avoid controlled airspace, he attempted to descend for the final approach to Koromiko, with tragic results.
Caravan ZK-PDM was imported in April as a replacement while even more strenuous efforts were made on the single-engine IFR question. All apparent progress was rescinded, however, in November 1996 with a letter from the CAA. Cliff responded, expressing no confidence in the Director or his organisation, and Soundsair was promptly grounded for “serious safety concerns”. It was an unfortunate period for regional airlines as Air Chathams was also grounded but for different reasons.
The “serious concerns” turned out to be minor and Soundsair was fully operational in a few days, but legal expenses were a drain on the airline’s finances. Further legal costs were incurred for the coroner’s inquest into the crash of ZK-SFA, but Cliff’s two days on the witness stand, advocating single-engine IFR despite the CAA’s QC’s determined efforts to discredit him, led to the coroner’s recommendations including finalising such operations without delay.
That took a further two years, but it did happen. Cliff said later, “In some ways the story of Skyferry/Soundsair is also a story of the evolution within the CAA. We now have a great relationship with the CAA and the present people there.”
That is echoed by Andrew Crawford, current managing director and CEO. “We never have a problem with the CAA,” he says. “With the pressures of time with Air New Zealand pulling out of these routes they’ve given us every bit of cooperation. The CAA recognises honesty in operators.”
The airline recovered from all that mid-1990s trauma and by early this century was posting a creditable profit. Cliff, however, while maintaining his airline flying career, admitted after all the hard work that realising its full potential would need far more resources than he had, including full-time management. He and Diane sold two-thirds of the company in December 2003 to Auckland businessmen Andrew Crawford and Steve Handyside.
So began the new direction. The company name was changed to Sounds Air Travel and Tourism Ltd, or Sounds Air for short, and a new orange-and-white colour scheme was adopted with the albatross logo. A Gippsland Airvan was added to the fleet in early 2004 and flew a scheduled Wellington–Kaikoura service for five years, and the same year Skydive the Sounds Ltd was formed with Neil Bradley and Callum McGlinchy.
Three years later, in partnership with Craig Anderson, the company bought Omaka-based Aeromotive (Blenheim) Ltd and renamed it Sounds Aero Maintenance, today occupying a new hangar beside the existing wartime structure housing the aero club. Chief engineer is Wayne Tantrum, a familiar face on Omaka for many years.
“That has really made our business,” says Andrew. “We can control all our maintenance, and it also looks after more than 50 other GA aircraft.
“The other key was the implementation of Takeflite, our online reservation system. It changed us from an 8-to-5 phone answering business to a 24-hour operation. Without a shadow of a doubt, it revolutionised our business.”
Based in Blenheim, Sounds Air currently flies to eight destinations—Kapiti Coast (Paraparaumu), Koromiko (Picton), Napier, Nelson, Taupo, Wellington, Westport and Woodbourne—with Whanganui having been tried but dropped after some months through lack of patronage.
The smaller piston-engine types and strip operations have been taken over by Pelorus Air, leaving the Sounds Air fleet thoroughly modern and all-turboprop, all flown single-pilot IFR. The five Cessna Caravans have been joined by three Pilatus PC-12s, one of them leased, with another PC-12 soon to arrive. By the end of April the entire fleet will be painted in the house colour scheme.
Staff members number 50, 22 of them pilots. Moving to chief pilot is Craig Anderson as Willie Sage becomes check and training manager, and Na’ama Guetta is senior pilot while Pauline Leech looks after quality assurance and health and safety.
“We pay them well,” says Andrew. “We haven’t lost a pilot to the major airlines for some time.”
The atmosphere at check-in counters is cheerful, and one young pilot admits that it’s the first aviation organisation he’s worked for where he likes everybody. One downside to a happy company and lack of staff turnover, however, is that progress through the ranks is likely to be slow.
The airline is popular with the local community, too. While the cost of a seat can be higher than a major airline’s cut rate—which is available only some distance ahead—the price doesn’t vary according to the time ahead of travel and so passengers can budget.
Nor is it difficult or incurring any sort of penalty to change a booking, a pleasant change from the major airlines where any alteration in booked travel involves protracted negotiation with a call centre in a southern Asian country, for the privilege of paying extra to be jammed into a seat with zero knee room on a flight an hour late in departing.
Some of Sounds Air’s routes are slightly out of the ordinary, too, such as Blenheim and Nelson to Kapiti Coast. As Andrew explains, “A hundred and fifty thousand people live within a half-hour drive of Kapiti, so it makes sense.”
The geography of Cook Strait means that only one of Sounds Air’s sectors can be driven, but the message is slowly being accepted by the business sector that less risk is involved, as well as much less time and fatigue, in sending executives by air rather than having them drive. The CAA requirement for single-engine IFR is an engine failure rate of 1:100,000 hours, and the Pratt & Whitney PT6, of which hundreds of thousands have been made in more than 50 years, has a failure rate of one in more than 500,000 hours. There has never been a fatality due to engine failure in a PC-12.
The biggest recent change for Sounds Air came from Air NZ’s announcement late last year that its subsidiary Eagle Airways was winding down and that three of its destinations—Kaitaia, Whakatane and Westport—would lose their air services entirely, while some other sectors such as Wellington–Taupo would be dropped. With only months before the cuts were to take place, intensive activity was seen among the smaller regional airlines to fill the gaps.
Sounds Air was handily placed to take on the routes from Wellington to Taupo and Westport, but sought council reassurance and backing. Six-year agreements were made with the Taupo and Buller District Councils whereby the council guarantees the first three seats per flight, and cooperation has extended to marketing, promotion and some managerial support. Buller in particular is working hard in the light of cement works and coal mine closures, and announcement of a major project is reported to be imminent.
Servicing the new destinations, with their adjacent high mountainous terrain and longer distances, required new and pressurised aircraft. The Pilatus PC-12 is more familiar as a corporate transport and, in Australia, as a standard mount for the Royal Flying Doctor Service to the outback, but it is also marketed as a nine-seat airliner. The RFDS Western Operation was replacing some of its fleet and Pilatus, perhaps welcoming the opportunity for some market penetration in New Zealand, provided a great deal of support.
Sounds Air’s PC-12s are being refurbished with new engines, new five-blade MT propellers, new interiors and some new avionics. Their common source means that cockpits and instrumentation are standard across the fleet, and they are popular with those pilots who have moved up from the Caravans.
“The support from Cessna and Pilatus is 180 degrees apart,” says Craig Anderson. “Cessna couldn’t care less if we have an AOG because they’re concentrating on the jets, but Pilatus couldn’t possibly be better.”
As well as the scheduled services, the PC-12 is also proving popular on high-end charters with its speed and ability to operate into unsealed airstrips. One recent charter involved European tourists flown from Auckland to Franz Josef Glacier and return, with a side trip by helicopter up on to the ice.
The PC-12s are maintained in Feilding by Avcraft, Pilatus Australia’s authorised satellite service centre. The Manawatu is close to the airline’s run to Taupo, and timetables are arranged around minimal ferrying or disruption for scheduled maintenance.
Sounds Air may have left its small GA roots behind and taken on some big challenges lately (“We didn’t quite appreciate what it would take to add another type,” admits Andrew Crawford), but Koromiko has been developed as an air park and passenger numbers have seen a more than fivefold increase in 12 years.
As Wellington International Airport said in its latest six-monthly report, “Sounds Air is growing from being a small local operator to a material regional player with five routes and 100,000 seats forecast to be flown in 2016.”
The airline appears to be in a good position, geographically and otherwise, to survive where so many others throughout the country have not.
Acknowledgements: Aviation News would like to thank Sounds Air for its cooperation in the preparation of this article and Steve Lowe’s 3rd level NZ blog for background information.
- Report and phototraphs by John King.
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