03 June 2012

To Hokitika by Eagle Air

On the 8th of February 2001 Air New Zealand announced that the airline was to acquire sixteen new Beechcraft 1900D 19-seat aircraft. These were to replace Eagle Air’s existing Bandeirante fleet and both Eagle’s and Air Nelson’s Metroliner fleet with Eagle Air identified as the 19-seat aircraft operator. A second-hand Beech 1900 arrived in New Zealand in May 2001 to commence crew training ahead of the introduction of the type on airline service. Deliveries of the 16 new aircraft began in October 2001 and went through until December 2002.

Announcing Eagle Air’s replacement of Air Nelson’s West Coast service in May 2002 Eagle Airways general manager Doug Roberts told the West Coast Times that “there would be no change to the times or price of the service, which involved three return flights to Christchurch daily, and one Westport to Wellington service daily. But Mr Roberts said the service was going from two-star to four-star. “The Beech 1900s were more comfortable, people could stand up in them, had a toilet, plenty of room and reclining leather seats. The higher rate-of-climb the aircraft had would shave five minutes off both the Westport and Hokitika service flight times.”

Eagle Air took over Hokitika flights on Sunday the 11th of August 2002. During that afternoon Air Nelson flew the normal afternoon services between Christchurch and Hokitika with Beechcraft 1900D ZK-EAH flying the final early evening flight from Christchurch to Hokitika (Eagle 884) to inaugurate Eagle Air’s Hokitika service.

Eagle Air Beech 1900D ZK-EAA taxis to the terminal at Hokitika on 5 July 2010.

The change of airline meant a change in the face of local staff. Air Nelson’s two traffic and two tarmac staff were made redundant as Eagle Air moved to a contract arrangement for ground handling and Drew Howat and Liz Sawkins became the contractors.

In late 2003 and early 2004 Eagle Air and the local airport company went head to head over the Hokitika Airport company’s decision to introduce a $5 departure tax on all customers leaving Hokitika to offset a $30,000 deficit incurred in the previous financial year. Eagle responded with the ultimatum that it would withdraw the early morning service to Christchurch and the return evening service if the tax was implemented. Eagle’s general manager told the West Coast Times that he made an impassionate plea not to implement the tax. "I presented our case to them, re-emphasising our main argument. We have invested heavily in the aeroplanes and have made reductions in the air fares. The departure tax is a slap in the face... in my view another $5 would make the difference between people driving and flying to the West Coast." He also pointed out that the deficit was largely due to management costs.

The Airport Company and the Westland District Council responded positively to the challenge. The tax was not introduced and the local airport company restructured its management system. Eagle Air, which had only ever operated 15-18 seaters, was traditionally quite innovative in developing services to its ports. This was also true for its Hokitika service. By November 2004 passenger numbers had risen from 18,000 to 27,000 per annum with flights running 80% full. To cater for this Eagle Air introduced a fourth flight to Hokitika from the 12th of December 2004. Announcing the new flights Doug Roberts was reported as being happy with the change in the management direction of the Hokitika Airport board, following a recent re-shuffle. "We will be trying to work more closely with the directors and look forward to on-going relations with them, there seems to be a lot more of a common sense approach and that's a good sign." With the new mid-afternoon service the town had a good spread of departures at 7.10am, 9.20am, 3.35pm and 5.30pm, while flights arrived at 9.05am, 3.15pm, 5.10pm and 7.25pm.

The greatest competitor for many of Eagle Air’s services was the car. Added to this, the economics of operating a 19-seater means it is not possible to offer the same level of discount fares as can be offered on main trunk services. To this end many West Coast will drive to Christchurch to catch a Boeing flight to Wellington or Auckland. Similarly a number of Greymouth people will travel to Westport an hour north to catch a 50 minute flight, single sector flight to Wellington rather than travel 30 minutes south to Hokitika to catch a 30 minute flight to Christchurch, followed by a stopover and a 45 minute Boeing flight to Auckland. The Westport option also offers the possibility of a Grab-a-seat fare to Wellington while the Hokitika Grab-a-seat fares are almost always to Christchurch.

This competition with the car creates a problem for the Eagle Air schedulers. Invariably the first flight from Christchurch to Hokitika in the morning is heavily booked, often with many more wanting to travel than the seats that are available. To counter this, from the 12th of February 2007, Eagle contracted Air National to operate a mid-morning Christchurch-Hokitika-Christchurch weekday service using British Aerospace Jetstream 32 aircraft as well as the Saturday morning and Sunday afternoon flights to Hokitika.

A couple of shots of Air National BAe Jetstream 32s. Above, ZK-ECJ showing its previous operation by Origin pacific at Hokitika on 23 November 2007 and below ZK-ECN arriving at Hokitika on an Eagle Air flight on 17 December 2009.

The new service, which departed Christchurch at 9.45 am was too late for business people, especially for those who had business in Greymouth. It also meant a third morning departure from Hokitika for which there was little demand. With these factors and the recession of 2009 this fifth daily service struggled somewhat and gradually the number of days it operated was reduced.

The two morning Eagle Air flights on the ground at Hokitika at the same time on the 25th of October 2006. In the foreground Air National's Jetstream ZK-ECI and behind Eagle Air's Beech 1900 ZK-EAE.

By late 2010 Air National was only operating two-three flights a week for Eagle Air on the Christchurch-Hokitika service. The grounding of Air National in early 2011 meant the end of the mid-morning service, though the effect of this was negated by Air Nelson using Bombardier Q300s on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays morning.

Beech 1900 ZK-EAG in the All Black scheme arriving at Hokitika on 4 April 2013
The Hokitika timetable for week of 15-21 April 2012. The 2000 series flights are operated by Eagle Air with Beech 1900s, the 8000 series flights are operated by Air Nelson with Bombardier Q300s.

By 2016 Eagle Air was operating two flights between Christchurch and Hokitika on Saturdays, three on Sundays and Mondays and four on Tuesdays to Fridays, with a Monday morning service and Friday evening service being operated by Air Nelson Bombardier Q300 service.

Air New Zealand's decision to withdraw the Beech 1900 fleet meant the end of the Eagle service to Hokitika. The final flights were flown on the 1st of May 2016 with Beech 1900 ZK-EAC flying the three return Hokitika-Christchurch services. The final flight out of Hokitika was flown by Tom McGeoch and Alister Dumbleton. A couple of hours later the final Christchurch to Hokitika flight was flown by Captains Chris Mortimore and Trent O'Shea before they positioned the Beech back to Hamilton ending Eagle Air's almost 14 year service to Hokitika. The following day Air Nelson took over all Air New Zealand's Hokitika services.

ZK-EAC at Hokitika before the first departure to Christchurch on the 1st of May 2016 
Tom McGeoch and Alister Dumbleton, the crew on the final flight to Christchurch

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