31 December 2009

Air New Zealand drops Oamaru - AGAIN

Some 15 years after Air New Zealand had withdrawn its Air Nelson air service to Oamaru the national carrier moved to return.

For some time the Waitaki District Council had been advocating for the reintroduction of an air service to Oamaru. In 2005 the Council came in for ratepayer criticism when it spent about $400,000 resealing the 1.4km runway, painting the terminal, installing new toilets and refurbishing the control tower. The works, however, were not in vain for on the 21st of June 2006 Air New Zealand announced that it was to reintroduce a six day a week air service to Oamaru. The new service was to operate on a trial basis for six months and whether it continued was to depend on the support it received. The new service was to be operated by Air New Zealand’s Link carrier, Eagle Air, using a 19-seat British Aerospace Jetstream 32 chartered from Air National. The Jetstream proved to be a much more suitable aircraft than the previously unpressurised Piper Chieftains Air Nelson had operated some 15 years before.

In a company press release Air New Zealand Group General Manager Norm Thompson said the airline was delighted to once again provide Oamaru with an air service and, given the support of the local business community, he was confident that it would be well utilised saying that "this new service is a good example of Air New Zealand's commitment to support the smaller regional communities of New Zealand by providing direct links to the larger centres."  

The Waitaki District Council had to invest some $40,000 to get Oamaru Airport ready for the new service. The council entered a six month contract with Air NZ, waiving landing fees and providing support staff at the terminal for flights. The Waitaki District Council’s Corporate Services group manager, Stephen Halliwell, was reported in the Otago Daily Times as saying “it would cost the council about $15,000 for the six months to staff the airport terminal for flights. Up to $25,000 would be spent by the council before the service started to get the airport operational. That included rewiring of the terminal, interior carpet and paint, installing a heat pump and furniture. Outside work would include resealing the runway apron and additional runway lighting. Fencing and upgrading security, including a security camera for the carpark, would be needed.”

The first flight operated into Oamaru on Sunday the 6th of August 2006. About 120 people welcomed the first flight flown by Air National BAe Jetstream ZK-ECI, aptly named Spirit of Waitaki. The first scheduled flight from Christchurch to Oamaru was flown under the command of Captain Alan Lord and First Officer Peter McKenzie and landed at Oamaru just after 5.45pm carrying 14 passengers. At the launch of the service Eagle Air’s general manager, Doug Roberts, was reported as saying 17 passengers were booked to fIy out of Oamaru the next morning and forward bookings were strong. “All we need now is for the people of Oamaru and North Otago to support the service," he said.

Photo : Otago Daily Times

The new service saw Monday to Friday flights departing Oamaru at 7.05am for the 45 minute flight Christchurch. On Friday nights there was an evening flight from Oamaru at 6.25pm which arrived in Christchurch at 7.10pm. Southbound flights departed Christchurch, Sunday to Friday, at 5.20pm to arrive in Oamaru at 6.05pm. The flights were well patronised and the service continued well past its six month trial period.

In April 2009 the Oamaru air service received a bomb shell when Air New Zealand announced a major revision of the timetable from the 18th of May 2009. The convenient northbound morning and southbound evening services were cut and were replaced with a Monday to Friday Christchurch-Oamaru service which departed Christchurch at 8.30am and then left Oamaru on the return flight for Christchurch at 9.35am. Eagle Air’s General manager, Grant Kerr, told the Oamaru Mail a review of the service showed more customers utilised the service into Oamaru rather than out of Oamaru and the changes would better meet the needs of business travellers. Customer feedback suggested that business people flying into Oamaru would prefer to arrive in the morning rather than the evening, to allow for early meetings and a full day's work, he said. The only problem with this was there no afternoon service out of Oamaru. The new schedule was also totally unsuitable for Oamaru business people.

The Spirit of Waitaki, Air National's BAe Jetstream ZK-ECI at Oamaru on 7 December 2009.

Unsurprisingly it did not work. In July Deputy Mayor, Gary Kircher, told the Otago Daily Times, the changed schedule "just hasn't been a flyer". Following many complaints from North Otago people and discussions between Eagle Air and the Waitaki District Council a revision to the timetable revision was made from the 20th of July 2009. This latest schedule varied from day to day: Flights left Christchurch for Oamaru on Mondays at 8.30am and 6.25pm; on Wednesdays at 6.25pm and on Fridays at 2.20pm. Flights from Oamaru to Christchurch left at 9.35am on Mondays, 7.05am on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and 3.25pm on Fridays.

Once again, this schedule proved unsustainable and it was no surprise when it was announced on the 14th of October 2009 that the last flight to Oamaru would operate on the 31st of December 2009. It was stated that passenger loads on the service had averaged 45% over the previous six months. No reporter asked what the load factor had been with the original northbound morning and evening southbound services.

Local interests were not impressed with the Air New Zealand decision and felt it was an interesting time for Eagle Air to pull out when there were proposals for a new cement plant by Holcim (New Zealand) Ltd, a proposal by Meridian Energy for a new power scheme on the lower Waitaki River, new irrigation schemes and a new dairy processing plant near Glenavy.

And so it was that on 31 December 2009 Eagle Air’s Beech 1900 ZK-EAL flew the last Air New Zealand service to and from Oamaru for the second time. Six passengers flew into Oamaru at around 9.10am on with 14 passengers leaving on the last flight at 9.25am.

The last flight... passengers checking into board Eagle Air's Beech 1900 ZK-EAL for the last flight from Oamaru on the 31st of December 2009. Photos : Oamaru Mail

So what’s the moral behind the Oamaru saga? Provincial centres want not only an air service but a good air service. Gone are the days when Friendships flew into provincial centres at times when an aircraft was available but people didn’t want to fly. Nowadays, if there is no convenient and relatively cheap air service, people will drive to a larger centre to catch a flight to a major centre to fly when they want to fly. In Oamaru’s case Christchurch is an easy 3 hour drive. With flights to from Christchurch to Auckland from $ 59 or Christchurch to Wellington for $39 why pay huge fares to fly from Oamaru? Grab-a-seat offered Christchurch Oamaru fares often – but rarely if ever offered cheap fares beyond Christchurch. The challenge for Eagle Air is to be all things to all people – provide a good business service to the provinces and at the same time be a low-cost carrier. Not easy. In the meantime we wait for the next flight to Oamaru...


  1. Out of interest, any idea on the standard fare charged between Oamaru and Chch?

  2. The current top fare between Chch and Hokitika is $244 one way... the airfare to Oamaru used to be slightly higher than the Hokitika flights... However with grabaseat you could often get $39... I flew down to Oamaru for this a few weeks before the service ended. Fares were part of the problem with the service, in addition to losing the flights that overnighted in Oamaru. Good timetable and good fares is the way to fill seats!