08 January 2012

Experience the Difference - Air National's Great Barrier Express

In 1995 National started taking a keen interest in Tikapa Air. This airline, started by Monique Van Dooren in 1992, offered a twice daily air service between Great Barrier Island and Auckland using a Cessna 177 and, during the 1994/95 summer a Piper Cherokee 6. Monique was aware the service she had built up needed further expansion and, at the same time, Air National were impressed with what Monique was doing and how she was doing it. As their GAF Nomad wasn’t doing much Air National suggested they could work together with Tikapa Air. Monique was interested. Her airline was well established and at the time she could see the advantages of it being a mutually beneficial arrangement. As a result, Air National and Tikapa Air merged together to launch Great Barrier Express. Monique, along with Air National, managed the project and integration of the service. A ‘hand over’ wine and cheese evening was organised on Great Barrier Island at the Claris Club for residents and local businesses and the merger was introduced and explained.  On the 6th of October 1995 Air National commenced Auckland-Great Barrier Island flights under the name Air National Great Barrier Express with its GAF N24A Nomad ZK-ECN (c/n N24A-42) with Monique joining Air National as a Nomad pilot.

Carrying Great Barrier Express titles GAF N24A Nomad gets airborne from Dairy Flat on 11 March 1996.

The company, inviting islanders to “experience the difference” promoted itself as offering new standards of quality and safety of airline service, noting it was the only airline offering Great Barrier Island an “all two engine” airline fleet and the only operator to offer a multi-engine turbo prop. The company initially offered between two or three flights a day to Claris with three flights a day being scheduled for the summer season.

The Advertising War Begins... A full page timetable feature in the Barrier Bulletin, October 1995

The November 1995 issue of the Barrier Bulletin carried a review of Air National’s service delighting that the new airline offered “treats” en route. The reporter wrote, I had the chance to catch a flight with Air National last month. Reg brought the three of us up to the airfield and was as cheerful as ever. The plane already waited for us, and we could choose a seat in the spacious 15-seater. To our great surprise Carlie came along with a tray full of snacks and orange juice to choose from. I unpacked my camera because l noticed, to my delight, the windows were clean. The plane swiftly took off, exactly on time. The trip seemed very short, maybe because of the interesting journal in front of my seat (and every seat).

Another full page advertising feature exhorting the locals to experience the difference - Barrier Bulletin, November 1995

The arrival of Air National on the Great Barrier route was a major challenge for Great Barrier Airlines. The later arrival of Northern Air put pressure on all three airline and fares dropped as low as $90 return. While the islanders delighted in the reduced fares the airlines were struggling. Reflecting on the competition in the February 1997 issue of NZ Wings Great Barrier Airlines’ Mark Roberts said “The problem with the Barrier is that everybody's trying to make a full year's profit out of the four summer months. Air National was our most serious competitor. They did a very good job, with very good aircraft, and started the practice of pilots wearing ties to the Barrier, which we've kept up.”

Great Barrier Airlines strikes back #1 - with its own full page advertising -  anyone can promise you the best service. Barrier Bulletin, November 1995
Great Barrier Airlines strikes back #2 - Not to be out done with the turboprop Nomad, GBA reintroduces their larger Twin Otter turboprop. Barrier Bulletin, December 1995

Despite the low fares and high standards Air National was offering the competition was such that Air National were not filling the 15 seat Nomad and so they leased Partenavia P68B ZK-PFT (c/n 42) from Parakai Aviation. The losses mounted, even with the use of the much smaller Partenavia, and Air National finally decided to withdraw from the Barrier run in October 1996, some 12 months after commencing the service to the island. Great Barrier Airlines bought from Air National, at some expense, the trading name Great Barrier Xpress and Express. This trading name was to be a future source of conflict with a later competitor for Great Barrier Airlines, Mountain Air.

Parakai Aviation Partenavia, ZK-PFT, at Parakai on 28 November 1996

So ended Air National’s only foray into an airline service in its own right. It returned to its core charter and corporate work and offering back up and additional capacity for New Zealand’s major domestic carriers.

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