10 June 2012

James Air - The Sun City Airline

On the 1st of July 1978 James Aviation rebranded Capital Air Services, which it owned, as James Air. At the time of the rebranding Capital Air Services were using four Cessna 402 aircraft; Cessna 402A ZK-DHW (c/n 402A-0065) and Cessna 402Bs ZK-DNQ (c/n 402B-0222), ZK-DSG (c/n 402B-0559) and ZK-EHT (c/n 402B-0340). All the aircraft became part of the James Air fleet with ZK-EHT being the first aircraft to be repainted in James Air’s black and red colour scheme in late July 1978.

Showing of its new colours, Cessna 402 ZK-EHT over Nelson. Source : Nelson Evening Mail 27 July 1978

Cessna 402 ZK-DSG on a charter to Hokitika in 1978.

The change from Capital Air Services to James Air saw the end of the air service to Greymouth and Christchurch with the airline focussing on Cook Strait services from its Nelson base to Blenheim, Wellington and Palmerston North as well as flights from Blenheim to Wellington. The airline also continued to offer charter services. The Cessna 402s were, however, uneconomic, and accordingly three of them were sold; ZK-DHW to Westland Flying Services, ZK-DNQ to Air Central, and ZK-DSG to A J Plank in Palmerston North, though the latter was made available to James Air as a backup aircraft or at peak times. In late 1979 an 11-seat Cessna 404 Titan, ZK-TAT (c/n 404-0080), was added to the fleet as a replacement for the smaller Cessna 402s.  In addition to the scheduled work the Titan was also used to provide live deer transportation between James Aviation's deer recovery operation on the West Coast and a holding farm in the central North Island. Up to eighteen trussed and tranquilised deer could be accom­modated in the aircraft on these flights.

The Cessna 404 Titan ZK-TAT, again on a charter to Hokitika in support of oil exploration off Hokitika. Photo taken in
October 1981.

Timetable effective 4 June 1979


In February 1980 James Air looked to coordinate its air services with Hamilton-based Eagle Air and Napier-based Air Central. The three companies saw this as a way to pool their resources in the face of the difficulties of running a third level operation on lean routes and Air New Zealand’s unwillingness to relinquish any services to provincial centres. The combined effort operation, which was to be operated under the umbrella name Air United, was to be structured around a scheduled daily service by all three operators to Palmerston North. The talks, however, failed to produce to a tangible operation.

Cessna 402 ZK-DNQ at Greymouth on a charter on 19 August 1979

By the end of the 1980 financial year the company was operating 46 flights a week on the Nelson, Wellington, Blenheim route and was averaging 1000 plus passengers a month across Cook Strait. But, even with the reduced fleet, the company was operating at a loss. To counter these losses and to increase loadings the company tried to offer discounted fares, especially on the poorly patronised Nelson-Blenheim route.

August 1980 was a significant month for the airline. In a surprise move James Aviation Ltd, James Air’s parent company, was taken over by a newly-formed company, which was eventually named Aviation Corporation Ltd. A second event was more damaging for the airline. On the 22nd of August the Titan made a wheels-up landing at Woodbourne while on the morning Dominion newspaper flight from Wellington to Nelson, via Blenheim. In October 1980 James Air conceded that it could not compete with Air New Zealand over Cook Strait and cut back on its Wellington flights. Passengers flights to and from Blenheim were reduced with a largely-courier only service of one return flight being offered six days week, and likewise the Wellington-Nelson run was reduced to one return service five days a week.

A very sad looking Cessna 404 ZK-TAT at Blenheim's Woodbourne Airport. Source : Nelson Evening Mail, 22 August 1980

Timetable effective October 1980

Faced with higher costs, dropping patronage, and the loss of a key Databank contract, James Air slashed its Wellington flights on the 1st of April 1981 with the airline deciding to concentrate on its Nelson-Palmerston North service. Because of its continuing losses on both the Wellington-Blenheim and Wellington-Nelson sectors the Licensing Authority approved an application to operate only one scheduled service per week on a Sunday morning trip for the Sunday papers to be flown from Wellington to Nelson. The Wellington-Blenheim service was placed on a non-scheduled basis and not operated.  

The greatly reduced timetable effective April 1981

In August that year, however, with Air New Zealand cutting its early-morning flight between Blenheim and Wellington James Air applied to the Air Services Licensing Authority for permission to run at least three flights a week between Wellington and Blenheim and a minimum of the same number of flights between Blenheim and Palmerston North, through Nelson. These flights commenced soon after with a Monday to Friday service being offered.

Back with Wellington services, timetable effective November 1981

James Air’s March 1982 shows the airline was operating more flights with weekday return services between Blenheim and Wellington both in the early morning and late afternoon. In between these flights the aircraft operated a Blenheim-Nelson-Palmerston North and return service. This flight also operated on Sundays. There were  also three additional flights on a Monday, Friday and Sunday between Nelson and Palmerston North and a direct Sunday only service was offered between Nelson and Wellington and return.

More flights appeared in the March 1982 timetable

Cessna 402 ZK-EHT at Wellington

James Aviation’s founder, Ossie James, had been waiting in the wings for many years for the Government to make a decision as to the role third level airlines should have on the New Zealand aviation scene. He had been promoting this when James had owned Capital Air Services and he continued to promote it when the airline was under the James Air banner. In particular he advocated the possibility of 18-20 seat turbo-prop aircraft servicing the West Coast or other smaller provincial services and being linked to the national carrier. Ultimately this was what was to happen later with Air Nelson and Eagle Air but in the early 1980s both the Government and Air New Zealand were reluctant to move on this. The company was wisely cautious in not investing in larger, more expensive turboprop aircraft without significant work for them. Meanwhile, from November 1981, James Air had to compete not only with Air New Zealand on its Cook Strait routes, but also with a new competitor, Air Albatross. It was this company that was to revolutionise regional air services in New Zealand.

In 1982, however, James Air did add a turboprop aircraft to its fleet. Between mid-1982 and 1984 the company used Beech 99, ZK-JAF (c/n U-102), on an overnight courier service between Auckland-Wellington-Christchurch. An application was also made in 1982 to add a second Beech 99 to the fleet to cater for increasing patronage and freight on the Cook Strait service. As it happened, plans for the second Beech came to nothing, with an Aero Commander 500A, ZK-DCF (c/n 500-A-1274-97), being added as a backup aircraft for the Cessna Titan.

Beech 99 ZK-JAF was used for courier work. It is seen here at Auckland on 24 November 1982.

Aero Commander ZK-DCF at Nelson in January 1983.

The James Air name disappeared from Cook Strait on the 1st of August 1983 when the airline was renamed Avcorp Commuter reflecting its ownership by the Aviation Corporation Ltd.

The last timetable effective 1 January-31 July 1983

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