14 April 2013

Air Chathams' South Pacific Operations

Air Chathams’ entry into the South Pacific began in October 2004 after the New Zealand fisheries and shipping company, the Reef Group and the Government of Niue opened on Niue a joint venture called Niue Fish Processors. The new factory, however, was faced with the logistical problem of moving its chilled product from Niue to Fiji to connect with international air links. The Reef Group looked to the expertise of Air Chathams which already operated a similar operation of flying fish products from the isolated Chatham Islands to mainland New Zealand.  In early March 2005 the Reef Group announced its decision to launch Reef Air in April 2005. The airline, which was to be operated by Air Chathams, intended to provide scheduled services between Niue and Fiji. As well as being a freight airline potential was seen to increase Niue's accessibility as both a visitor destination and as a major player in world export markets for horticulture and aquaculture. At the same time agreement was made to sub-lease the Convair to the Tongan domestic airline, Peau Vava’u, for its Fua’amotu-Vava’u route and this meant flights between Niue and Tonga would also be operated. The airline’s pilots, technical and steward staff were to be recruited by Air Chathams and ground handling duties subcontracted to local companies.

On the 27th of April 2005, with the necessary approvals in hand, Air Chathams’ Convair 580 ZK-KSA departed Auckland en route to Tonga’s Fua’amotu International Airport and began route proving flights the following day. Services for Peau Vava’u Ltd began on the 3rd of May 2005 with flights operated between Fua’amotu and Vava’u. The Convair was scheduled to operate the route twice daily from Monday to Saturday when not being used for the Niue service. Peau Vavau’s two DC-3s were used for the flights from Tongatapu to ‘Eua, Ha’apai, Niuafo’ou and Niuatoputapu. 

It was envisaged that Reef Air’s standard routing for the Niue service would be Fua’amotu-Niue-Nadi and return. The Convair was an ideal aircraft for the service capable of carrying five tonnes of fish to Nadi or being able to seat up to 37 passengers. The flight from Niue to Nadi was two hours and a special introductory return airfare was offered at under $500. Reef Air hoped the flights would attract regional consultants working out of offices in Fiji and Niueans who want a week of “overseas shopping.” The first flight from Tonga to Niue and to Nadi in Fiji was scheduled to be operated on the 4th of May 2005, however, a bilateral agreement for the service was not formalised until the end of May 2005. The premier of Niue was reported in the Fiji Times as saying that the agreement will ease the frustrations the people of Niue face especially in the exporting their commodities to overseas markets. He said now that Fiji has agreed, it means that their tuna will reach Japan much earlier at reduced freight cost.

While the Fiji authorities had given approval for freight flights to begin the landing rights in Fiji did not allow Reef Air to carry passengers and so within a few weeks the Reef Air service between Niue and Fiji was discontinued. In July 2006 it looked as if the Reef Air freight air connection from Niue might be resurrected as the island’s fish processor readied itself for a huge increase in product due to five long liners from French Polynesia beginning to supply the company from early August 2006.  The CEO of Reef Shipping, Wayne Harris-Daw, was reported as saying “We are looking to probably re-introduce Reef Air back into the market and they (Air Chathams) will be running a freight plane out of Niue into Tonga, Samoa, to interconnect with Air New Zealand southbound to Auckland and re-route it back that way, so that will increase our capacity. There is also an opportunity to run our freight plane up to Pago Pago and interconnect with Hawaiian.”

Reef Air Convair 580 ZK-KSA at Ha'apai in July 2005. Photo : Siegmar
Convair 580 ZK-KSA carrying both Reef Air and Peau Vava'u titles at Fua'amotu, Tonga on 2 July 2005. Photo : Joe Barr
Reef Air Convair 580 ZK-KSA carrying both Reef Air and Peau Vava'u titles at Vava'u in July 2005. Photos : Siegmar

Heavy maintenance work for the Convairs was carried out in New Zealand. On the 15th of September 2005 Convair ZK-CIE flew north from Auckland to Tonga. This was the first changeover of Convairs and such changeovers were to become a feature of Air Chathams South Pacific operations. ZK-KSA returned to New Zealand a few days later on the 20th of September 2005. Convair ZK-CIF made its first trip to Tonga on the 20th of February 2006, while ZK-CIB made its first visit, albeit a brief visit, to Tonga on the 26th of September 2006.

Meanwhile, Air Chathams found other work in the South Pacific for its Convairs. Some years before, in the last quarter of 1999 Air Fiji inaugurated a new regional "Pacific Link" service using an Embraer EMB-120 Brasilia. On the 27th September 1999 Air Fiji introduced flights between Fiji and Tuvalu and on the 16th November 1999, Pacific Link stretched its wings and launched a new thrice weekly service between Fiji’s capital, Suva, and Tonga. In anticipation of the withdrawal of Air Fiji’s Embraer EMB-120 Brasilia DQ-MUM Air Chathams was chartered by Air Fiji to operate its regional flights as well as domestic services between Tongatapu and Ha’apai and Vava’u for Air Fiji’s subsidiary, Airline Tonga. Airlines Tonga was a joint venture partnership between Air Fiji (49%) and Tongan travel agency, Teta Tours, and it started services in December 2005. ZK-CIF flew north to Auckland on the 1st of July and then on to Tonga on the 3rd and began operating the Airlines Tonga services. Toward the end of July the Convair positioned back to Fiji and from the end of July 2006 it began operating Air Fiji’s Brasilia’s domestic services in Fiji between Nadi and Suva as well as Air Fiji’s regional services to Tonga and to Tuvalu’s capital Funafuti. The first flight was operated to Tuvalu on the 31st of May 2006 using ZK-CIF. Another domestic port, Labasa on Fiji’s second island, Vanua Levu, was added to the Convair schedule on the 17th of November 2006.

For a photos of Convairs at Funafuti, Tuvalu see -
ZK-CIF on the first flight  :
ZK-CIE at Funafuti : http://i782.photobucket.com/albums/yy105/Peleka7/Tuvalu/1957Convair.jpg

Peau Vava’u was seriously affected by the Tongan riots in Nuku’alofa in November 2006. In some ways this marked the beginning of the end for Peau Vava’u. The airline’s remaining DC-3 was grounded in mid-2007 effectively ending their operations. Meanwhile, Air Chathams’ aircraft continued to be used on Air Fiji services until October 2008. By then Air Fiji was in financial difficulty. On the 23rd of August 2008 Airlines Tonga had ceased all activity indefinitely, citing its inability to meet rising fuel costs and Air Fiji itself ceased operations on the 1st of May 2009.

John King’s article on Chathams Pacific, The Passionate Airline (Aviation News January 2011 and February 2011), records states that, “In January 2008 the Tongan Prime Minister, Feleti Sevele, and Minister of Transport, Paul Karalus, approached Air Chathams’ Craig Emeny with a proposal that he form an airline to participate in the country’s domestic routes. Thus was born Chathams Pacific, operating separately from Air Chathams but naturally benefiting from a symbiotic relationship when it comes to equipment and flight crews. The approach was not made without some research by the Tongan authorities. They visited the Chatham Islands to see how the established airline managed to cope with operations to and from a remote Pacific island.” This led to the formation of Chathams Pacific.

Chathams Pacific started operations in Tonga in its own right on the 14th of April 2008. The initial flights, gwhich connected gave Ha’apai flights five days a week and Vavaʻu flights six days a week. These were operated by Air Chathams’ Metroliner ZK-CIC and Convairs. All the Convairs, ZK-CIB, ZK-CIE and ZK-CIF were used on Chatham Pacific services in Tonga at various times.

The first timetable for the start of services to the Niuas and 'Eua.

Arriving at Fua'amotu on 6 January 2011, Metroliner ZK-CIC

Services to ‘Eua and the Niuas, Niuafoʻou and Niuatoputapu, began after Britten Norman BN2A-27 Islander ZK-LYP (c/n 821) arrived in Tonga on the 13th of May 2008. The Islander was later supplemented by Embraer 820C ZK-RDT which departed Auckland bound for Tonga on the 30th of September 2008 and Beech 65-80 Queen Air A3-FEW (c/n LC-168) which Chathams Pacific obtained from the defunct Peau Vava’u. The Queen Airs, both Excalibur conversions, were used for the long run north to the Niuas as well to Vava’u and Ha’apai when there were smaller passenger loads. With the arrival of the faster twins the BN Islander, ZK-LYP, became largely confined to the short Fua’amotu-‘Eua sector, with typically two flights a day scheduled. The Islander was place on the Tongan civil register as A3-LYP in December 2009.
The 'Eua machine... BN Islander A3-LYP on engine run ups at Fua'amotu on 7 January 2011.

For video clips on the ‘Eua service see:

In 2010 Port Hutt Air’s Chathams Beech 65-80 Queen Air ZK-WKA was restored to airworthiness in preparation for use on Chathams Pacific’s Tongan operation. Placed on the Tongan register as A3-CIA it departed Auckland on the 20th of June 2010 flying via Norfolk Island and Nadi to arrive in Tonga the following day. With its arrival the Embraer 820 returned to Great Barrier Airlines in New Zealand.
Beech Queen Air A3-CIA arriving in Auckland on the 15th of June 2010, a few days before heading to Tonga. This was definitely the photo of the day! 
The service to the Niuatoputapu operated weekly. The Queen Air operated from Fua’amotu up to Vava`u where it refuelled before continuing on to Niuatoputapu and  returning back to Vava`u. On the following day of alternate weeks, it would operate a service from Vava’u to Niuafo`ou and return before heading back to Fua’amotu. The Queen Airs were also used on air ambulance duties as needed. On the 26th of May 2010 the Queen Air inherited from Peau Vava’u, A3-FEW, was on a flight from Tongatapu to Ha'apai when the pilots noted that the nose gear had failed to lock. The pilots decided to divert back to Tongatapu. On landing at Fua'amotu Airport the nose gear collapsed without injury to the crew or passengers.

A3-AWP, one of the two DC-3’s operated by Peau Vava’u, was grounded in 2007 and had remained hangared at Fua’amotu since that time. Finding it to be still in good condition Chathams Pacific decided to return it to airworthiness and it joined their fleet in 2010. Brendan Odell headed the restoration project to return A3-AWP to full airworthy condition, including being fitted with a new interior, seating for 25 passenger and completely overhauled engines and cockpit. "Tangaloa", as the aircraft was named, started operating scheduled passenger services for Chathams Pacific in September 2010, primarily between Fua’amotu and Ha’apai.

Douglas DC-3 ZK-AWP at Fua'amotu on 7 January 2011
A3-AWP and the Tongan Royal Family's Beech 18 N500MK  at Fua'amotu

The Tongan airline market relies heavily on the tourist industry for its sustainability. For Chathams Pacific this was reflected in the fact that the company ran at a loss during the off peak months of February to May, and relied on the peak July to January season to survive. Passenger numbers during the off-peak season were typically half of the peak season numbers. Also helping Chathams Pacific's viability was occasional charter work for the Convairs, including charter work from Fijian airline Pacific Sun. 

The only Convair to wear Chathams Pacific titles, ZK-CIF on approach to Auckland on 31 March 2012

Early in 2012 the Tongan Government announced that the Chinese Government intended to provide Tonga with a 50-seat MA-60 aircraft and a 17-seat aircraft. In addition flight training and engineering facilities were to be provided. The Government, keen to promote their two airline policy, announced that with the Chinese package it would sponsor another airline in competition to Chathams Pacific. As plans progressed to establish a second airline it became increasingly clear that Chathams Pacific would not be able to sustain its operations whilst maintaining viability. Sadly, on the 16th of January 2013 it was announced that Chathams Pacific would withdraw its Tongan air services on the 2nd of March 2013.

Chathams Pacific's Metroliner ZK-CIC at Fua'amotu in July 2012
In the Chathams Pacific’s press release Craig Emeny, Chatham Pacific’s CEO, recounted the airline’s involvement in the Kingdom’s air services. Late 2007 the Tongan Government invited me to set up an airline in Tonga at very short notice stating that there were concerns regarding financial failure of current Airline, and its inability to meet all travel demands and provide services to Eua and the Niua’s. Over the last four years I have established and developed an air service that is reliable and sustainable. This has given the inbound tourist operators confidence to promote Tonga as a destination, and Tongan people have been provided with a safe and affordable airline with the lowest domestic seat cost per kilometre in the region. I’ve invested heavily in Tonga to develop Chathams Pacific, funding it through the assets of my New Zealand operation to achieve the standard of domestic airline Tonga has today. My commitment included purchasing two additional aircraft suitable to service the sectors between Fua’amotu and ‘Eua and the Niua’s. I provided these services as a social responsibility and the revenue from these sectors cover only the operating cost of the Aircraft and have not contributed at all to the infrastructure (indirect) costs. I consider I have done all that has been asked of me and have achieved a good standard considering the relative isolation of Tonga and the very high costs of fuel and qualified operational expertise. I have now lost business confidence in Tonga due to the Governments attitude towards my airline and I won’t continue providing the domestic air services. It is a very sad decision for Marion and I to make because we care very much about our staff who are mainly Tongans and work loyally for the Airline and the Tongan people. We enjoy working and living in Tonga, and other than the imposed difficulties, it has been a rewarding and enjoyable experience.
Convair 580 ZK-CIF at Fua'amotu
So what future is there for Real Tonga. The Tongan former Minister of Transport, Paul Karalus criticised the Chinese-built aircraft project for Tonga in Matangi Tonga,. "There has yet to be full and total consultation of the public despite the government apparently embarking on a major exercise in the acquisition and operation of aircraft from the People's Republic of China. While heralded as a "grant" the public needs to be aware of the huge call for capital that will be required to establish a new airline, and, once operational, of sustaining its viability," he said... "Even a gifted aircraft has numerous costs involved, not least of which is the replacement cost at the end of its useful life." Paul believed the new aircraft the MA60 and Harbin Y12 would be a commercial failure in Tonga because they would not meet the market needs, and the highly valued MA60 would require a lease rate that the market could not support. He stated that the MA60 model, “being a 60 seater aircraft means that it would operate less than 1000 hours per year; an unsustainable level for a new aircraft, both economically and financially… Paul added that the the 17-seater Harbin Y12 would be “impossible” to run commercially in Tonga because it would not be able to accommodate fuel costs with lower pay loads. "Fuel costs , the minimum fuel loads required for the sector and, now, the considerably higher body weights of passengers in Tonga, all combine to make such aircraft uneconomical as they cannot carry an economic revenue payload over the sector.”

Filling in for Chathams Pacific's Islander while it was on heavy maintenance was Great Barrier Airlines' Islander ZK-REA seen here at Fua'amotu

Chathams Pacific’s last flights operated on the 2nd of March 2013. However, due to the non-arrival of Real Tonga’s aircraft Chathams Pacific aircraft were chartered to fly their services in the week following the closure. Chathams Pacific are retaining its hangar in Tonga as a base for charter services, but most of its planes would be flown back to New Zealand. Perhaps this is a sign that when they may, like MacArthur, one day return!

Some great pictures of the Chathams Pacific operation can be found here : http://www.travel-tour-guide.com/Tonga_whales_pictures/1_flights_to_tonga_aerial_photos.htm

The aircraft types... at the rear, Convair ZK-CIF and DC-3 ZK-AWP... in the front from left, BN Island ZK-LYP, Metroliner ZK-CIC and Queen Air A3-CIA. Photo : Chathams Pacific

Real Tonga leased a number of Chathams Pacific aircraft after the closure. Subsequently Douglas DC-3 A3-AWP/ZK-AWP returned to New Zealand on 23 December 2013, Metroliner ZK-CIC  on 6 February 2014, and BN Islander A3-LYP/ZK-LYP on 6 March 2014. Beech Queen Air A3-CIA was sold to Real Tonga.

For more on the history and development of Air Chathams' New Zealand operations see -


  1. Does this mean a 3rd airworthy DC3 is now in NZ?

  2. To date only the Metroliner has returned to New Zealand

  3. Has the metroliner gone out to the Chathams?

  4. I saw CIF at Auckland the other day.

  5. Yes, the Metroliner has done at least two flights to the Chathams since its return.