11 March 2012

Air Nelson's Hokitika service

Air Nelson started life as a division of Robert Inglis and Nick Smith’s Motueka Air Ltd and began operations on the 16th of December 1985 offering flights between Nelson and Wellington using Piper Pa31-310 Navajo ZK-NSN. A few days later Air Albatross collapsed and this provided the company an opportunity to expand its operation somewhat faster than it might have. By mid-1987 the company had added two Piper Chieftains to its fleet and Air Nelson was offering an efficient, economical, no frills Cook Strait service from Nelson as well as from Motueka under the Motueka Air Services banner. In 1988 the company started to expand its network by taking over Eagle Air’s flights between Nelson and Palmerston North and Wellington and Palmerston North as well as their own planned new service from Nelson south to Westport and Greymouth.

The latter expansion did not happen for in mid-September 1988 Air New Zealand announced that it had bought a half share in Air Nelson. Air Nelson were to acquire two 19-seat Fairchild Metroliner III aircraft and take over Air New Zealand’s West Coast services to Hokitika and Westport as well as picking up some flights between Nelson and Wellington and Nelson and Christchurch. Later that month it was announced Air Nelson were also to take over Air New Zealand’s midday Wellington-Timaru service, replacing it with a mid-afternoon Metroliner-operated service between Christchurch and Timaru.

At that time Air New Zealand served Hokitika with a twice daily Friendship service operated on Sundays through to Fridays flying a return Wellington-Westport-Hokitika-Christchurch service and a Saturday Christchurch-Hokitika return service. The two Friendship flights operated with an hour or two of each other and usually passed each other as they flew between Hokitika and Westport meaning there was no chance for business people to do a same day return journey to or from Hokitika. In handing the West Coast operation over to Air Nelson the then Air New Zealand chief executive, Jim Scott, said, "It no longer makes business sense to operate Fokker Friendships when smaller aircraft operating higher frequencies better suit the market. Our provincial services have always been an important part of our operations, but we must adapt to survive in changing times. What has been the best practice in the past does not necessarily provide the best solution for the future."

Air Nelson’s higher frequency replacement service to Hokitika offered 18 flights a week. These departed from Christchurch at 8.50am, 1.40pm, and 5.10pm Monday to Friday, arriving in Hokitika 30 minutes later. Return flights left Hokitika at 9.45am, 2.45pm, and 6pm. On Saturdays a morning flight was operated with two flights being operated on Sunday afternoons. The three flights a day schedule offered an extra 15 seats in and out of Hokitika each weekday. "It really is a positive move and not one of sadness," Paul Bowe, Air New Zealand’s southern regional manager, told the Greymouth Evening Star. "You are, in fact, getting more service and more seat availability. We see this not as a pulling out of the service, but a changing of the service to give more frequency with better connections.”

Air Nelson timetable effective 31 October 1988

Hokitika’s Mayor, Henry Pierson, was reported in the Greymouth Evening Star as greeting the announcement as a "mixture of bad and good news." He said the announcement came quite suddenly, and while it was unfortunate to lose the familiar Friendship flights, he believed the increased flights and new timetable will be acceptable to most people. One redeeming factor was that Air New Zealand will retain a half shareholding in Air Nelson, and that removed the uncertainty which was usually associated with third-level airlines. To lose the Friendships is a matter of regret, but I suppose it's just one of those things we have to accept. It remains to be seen whether it will be a better service, but I like to think that the good might overshadow the bad."

Air New Zealand flew its last Friendship service to Hokitika on the 30th of October with Air Nelson commencing its service the following day, the 31st of October 1988. However, as Air Nelson’s first Fairchild Metroliner III, ZK-NSW, had only arrived in the country on the 26th of October, the first Air Nelson flight was flown by Keith Jenkins in Associated Air’s Cessna 402 ZK-DSB. The Metroliner made its first familiarisation flight to Hokitika on the 20th of November with it being used on regular services to Hokitika from the 21st of November 1988. Until that date a number of different commuter aircraft were chartered to maintain the Hokitika service including Bell Air’s Beech 99 ZK-LLA, Mount Cook Airline’s DHC Twin Otter, ZK-MCO, Associated Air’s Cessna 402s ZK-DSB and ZK-KAN, Cessna 421 ZK-WLG, Air Safaris’ Nomads ZK-NMD and ZK-NME, Air Nelson’s Piper Chieftains ZK-NSO and ZK-NSP and various Air New Zealand Friendships. Air Nelson had been given a some six weeks to prepare for the October 31 starting date so as to include the new West Coast timetable in Air New Zealand’s summer timetabe. Commenting on this Air Nelson’s managing director, Mr Robert Inglis, said, "In retrospect the time was a little optimistic. They asked us to try and meet that time and we have done the very best that we could and remain grateful that the West Coast people have been patient and understanding of our situation."

Hokitika people were not only patient and understanding, but they were quick to embrace the new service with the three daily flights being booked-out for much of the summer with flights which were not leaving full were carrying 16-17 passengers.

Air Nelson's first Fairchild SA227AC Metroliner III, ZK-NSW (c/n 508), in full Air Nelson colours scheme at Hokitika on 8 August 1989. 

Air New Zealand had contracted the local House of Travel to provide traffic and tarmac staff for their services to Hokitika. This arrangement continued with Chris Cuff and Grace Trolle continuing to serve the Air Nelson flights as traffic staff. From 1989 they were employed by Air Nelson and remained until Air Nelson withdrew from Hokitika in 2002. The contracted tarmac staff changed when the Airways Corporation closed Hokitika’s Flight Service Station. At that time Air Nelson employed well known aviation enthusiast Mike Condon to convey ground conditions and look after the ground handling for the Air Nelson flights. When he later transferred to Air Nelson operations his role was taken over another well-known local aviation enthusiast, Jim Jamieson. These people, in many ways, were the face of Air Nelson in Hokitika. 

The faces of Air Nelson in Hokitika... Above, Grace Trolle and Chris Cuff, and below Jim Jamieson. Source : Air Nelson Link, September/October 1997

West Coat Times, August 1989

From the 1st of November 1989 Air Nelson adjusted their Hokitika schedule to allow the overnighting of a Metroliner in Hokitika. This permitted an early morning departure from Hokitika and early evening return and so enabled West Coasters the opportunity to do a full day of business in any of the main centres. The timetable, however, was not well thought out. The morning flight left Hokitika at 6.30am which meant Greymouth passengers had to leave Greymouth by 5.40 am to enable them to catch the flight. This, and the fact it was introduced just before the Christmas holidays, a relatively quiet time for business travellers, meant that it was not well supported and it was withdrawn on the 6th of April 1990, albeit with the prospect of its return and a better departure time when more aircraft became available.
Such a return was not too far in the distance as Air Nelson continued to expand. It took over all Air New Zealand’s Friendship services to Wanganui, Timaru and Oamaru, and more Metroliners were added to the fleet.

From the 4th of April 1990 Air Nelson took over Air New Zealand's Friendship services to Wanganui and Timaru which necessitated an increase in their Metroliner fleet in the form of Metros ZK-NSU (c/n AC705), NSY (c/n AC711) and NSZ (c/n AC 712). These aircraft had been operated for Trans World Express by Pocono Airlines. Both NSZ and NSU operated for a time in Trans World colours... Displaying its Trans World Express colours, ZK-NSU, with Air Nelson titles, at Hokitika on 14 May 1990.

On the 6th of August 1990 the overnight service was reintroduced as part of a five-flight a weekday timetable for Hokitika. In addition to the early morning departure/evening return service, Hokitika was offered a six-day-a-week flight to Wellington via Wesport while Westport people were connected to Christchurch via Hokitika. Robert Inglis said “indicates the commitment to providing a high frequency of services to the region." Again, the timetable was not well thought as it included three afternoon departures from Hokitika within a two hour period instead of the flights being spread throughout the day. The last departure from Hokitika, at 3.40 pm, was not suited to business people especially those who were coming to Hokitika from Greymouth to catch the flight. For Westport people the service also failed to offer local business people the opportunity to do a day’s business in Wellington or Christchurch or people in those centres to do a day's business in Westport.

The end of 1990 saw further expansion of Air Nelson’s services as Air New Zealand withdrew all its remaining Friendships. Tauranga, Rotorua, Taupo, Gisborne, Napier and New Plymouth were all added to the Air Nelson network and Saab 340s and more Metroliners were added to the fleet.

In September 1990 Air Nelson experienced further expansion when Air New Zealand relinquished Friendship flights between Wellington and Gisborne, Rotorua and Tauranga in favour of Air Nelson's Metroliners. As part of the fleet expansion Air Nelson sourced two Metroliners, ZK-NSQ (c/n AC706) and ZK-NSS (c/n AC692), from a British operator, Air Metro. These two British Metros were heavier than the rest of the fleet and they did not remain long in Air Nelson service. Neither of them were painted in Air Nelson's colour scheme. NSQ first entered service with Air Nelson in September 1990. It was leased to Eagle Air between March and May 1991. It returned to Air Nelson and remained in service until sold in the UK, its last Air Nelson service being on the 31st of March 1992. It is pictured above arriving at Hokitika on a late spring evening on the 13th of November 1990. The titles script replicated its former operator, Air Metro. After it was returned from Eagle Air the titles were changed as shown below at Hokitika on 4th of December 1991.

Meanwhile, not surprisingly, the extended West Coast service failed to generate sufficient patronage. The connection from Westport to Christchurch only averaged 2 to 3 passengers though sometimes this was due to the Hokitika-Christchurch section being heavily booked, meaning Westport travellers could not get seats. The five flight a day schedule, including the "round the rocks" connection to Westport and Wellington was dropped from 9th of February 1991. Hokitika reverted to a three flights a weekday schedule, at the same time losing its early morning departure.
West Coast Times, 3 September 1990

Two Metroliners sitting at Hokitika made an impressive picture! Metros ZK-NSU (left) and ZK-NSY (right) at Hokitika on 8 August 1990.

From the 21st of May 1991 the familiar Air Nelson livery was replaced and the aircraft were progressively repainted in the blue/teal/white colour scheme of the parent company and rebranded with Air New Zealand Link titles. In December 1995 Air New Zealand bought full ownership of Air Nelson.

Shown in the first Air New Zealand Link colour scheme is Metro ZK-NSV at Hokitika on 3 December 1997.

In mid-1994 the schedule was changed again with the reintroduction of a Metroliner overnighting in Hokitika. Once again this meant the provision of an early morning departure from Hokitika and evening service back which has been a feature of the Hokitika timetable ever since. Also, during the winter of 1994, Saab 340s replaced the Metroliner on the first flight out of Christchurch each morning. This proved popular in view of the often difficult alpine passes during the winter.

Saab 340 ZK-FXA doing the morning Christchurch-Hokitika-Christchurch service on 14 June 1994

In the years that followed Air Nelson continued to operate its three weekday flights with a consistent pattern of an early morning flight to Christchurch, returning after the arrival into Christchurch of Boeing flights from Auckland and Wellington. The Metro would then return to Christchurch by mid-morning. A reverse schedule was operated late in the afternoon with a late Friday evening service returning the Metro to Christchurch. On Saturdays a return service was operated in the morning and two return services were flown on Sunday afternoons and an additional flight over to Hokitika on Sunday evenings.

In 2002 Air New Zealand started rationalising and re-equipping its Link carriers. Eagle Air became the small aircraft carrier and re-equipped with 19-seat Beech 1900Ds; Air Nelson became the mid-size aircraft operator with 50-seat Bombardier Q300s and Mount Cook Airline operating the large turbo-prop operators with ATR 72-500s. This meant the end for Air Nelson’s Hokitika service. The final flight Air Nelson flight, NZ8609, was crewed by Captain Dave Horrell and First Officer A. Virtue in Fairchild Metroliner ZK-NSY on the 11th of August 2002. On that day the Hokitika Air Nelson staff finished, Eagle Air opting for contractors rather than employees.

Air New Zealand started changing its colour scheme in 1996 when it introduced its "Pacific wave" on the white fuselage with the two tone blue tail, though in many lights the subtely of the tail colours are difficult to see. The Link fleet did not change for some time. Most of the changes in the Link fleet's scheme came with the introduction of new aircraft, though in 1998 Eagle repainted some of its Metroliners in the new scheme with the word "Link" in the script on the tail. In 2001 more Eagle Metros were repainted along with some Bandeirantes with the koru featuring on the tail. Only one of Air Nelson's Saabs or Metroliners featured the new scheme, namely Metroliner ZK-NSY seen here arriving at Hokitika from Christchurch on the 5th of November 2001

Almost 10 years later Air Nelson returned to Hokitika with its Bombardier Q300s. In late 2010 Air New Zealand announced their intention to operate Air Nelson Q300 aircraft on the Christchurch-Hokitika service on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, with an additional return service on Friday evenings replacing Air National which was operating Jetstream services to Hokitika on behalf of Eagle Air. The Air Nelson service, which was to compliment Eagle Air’s services was scheduled to begin in April 2011 but in fact started in February 2011 after Air National was grounded by the Civil Aviation Authority.

While the loadings into Hokitika were positive for the morning flights the return service was not so popular so from January 2012 the Air Nelson component of the Hokitika service was reduced to two flights a week, on Monday mornings and Friday evenings.

Air Nelson Bombardier Q300 ZK-NEM arriving into Hokitika on 15 September 2015

With Air New Zealand's decision to withdraw the Beech 1900 aircraft from its fleet Air Nelson took over Hokitika services from the 2nd of May 2016. The Air Nelson schedule sees twice daily Bombardier Q300 flights between Hokitika and Christchurch. Bombardier Q300 ZK-NEG operated the first day of the full Air Nelson schedule.

Bombardier Q300 ZK-NEG operating the first flight of the full Air New Zealand schedule into Hokitika on 2 May 2016
The Air Nelson schedule effective 2 May 2016
An improved Air Nelson schedule which will be effective from 31 October 2016 


  1. Brilliant post Sir! Great photos taken at Hokitika.

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. NEG also operated day 2 of the new schedule arriving and departing on time.