07 February 2014

Au Revoir Masterton

Today marks the end of Air New Zealand’s service between Masterton and Auckland that has been operated by Eagle Air since the 16th of February 2009.

The prospect of this air service was first announced in September 2007 after negotiations between Air New Zealand and Wairarapa's tourism and economic development agency, Destination Wairarapa. The proposed service aimed at capitalising on a number of private and public sector businesses in Masterton that had strong connections in Auckland. Destination Wairarapa’s economic development manager, Geoff Copps, told the Wairarapa Times-Age that while no firm deal had been struck, an announcement was expected the following month, with a planned start to services in early 2008. For its part Air New Zealand insisted upon improvements to Masterton’s Hood Aerodrome including the provision of a new terminal.

It was not until April 2008, however, that the announcement of the Eagle Air service was made. Masterton Mayor Garry Daniell announced the service would start in September 2008 and would be operated by Eagle Air’s 19-seat Beech 1900Ds. For its part the local councils and local businesses committed $1,170,000 to the project. This included $470,000 already allocated for development at Hood Aerodrome in the District's annual plan and a further $700,000 for a terminal, sealed taxiway and hardstand, a gravel car park, runway lighting, sewer and water reticulation and telephone and power connections.  The September start date proved rather optimistic and it was February 2009 before the service was to be launched.

The first Eagle Air Beech 1900D flight into Masterton was operated from Palmerston North on the 15th of February 2009 by ZK-EAI.  The flight was greeted by the Masterton Mayor Garry Daniell, 300 locals and the Wairarapa Fern & Thistle Pipe Band and Masterton District Brass Band. The Wairarapa Times-Age reported that dignitaries on board the 19-seat Beech plane erupted into applause as the pilot announced the three words "welcome to Masterton". Among the 19 passengers who joined Mr Daniell on the flight was Carterton Mayor Gary McPhee, Wairarapa MP John Hayes, Eagle Air general manager Grant Kerr and representatives from Destination Wairarapa, WBS and Trust House.

Eagle Air’s General manager Grant Kerr told the crowd he was proud that Eagle Air was able to extend its regional operations despite the very tough economic climate. The airline was committed to doing its bit to stimulate regional travel and tourism. We've been blown away by the enthusiastic response we've had from the Wairarapa region and look forward to building a strong new route between Masterton and Auckland over the coming months.

The service officially began on the 16th of February 2009 with the morning flight from Masterton to Auckland. Flights between Masterton and Auckland operated Monday to Friday. The schedule was designed primarily to meet the needs of business customers, with a 7.05am departure from Masterton. A service departing Masterton on Friday evenings was also operated. An early evening Sunday to Friday return service was operated from Auckland to Masterton.

The first flight, ZK-EAI at Masterton on 16 February 2009... Photo : Eagle Air

The Masterton timetable

Six weeks later the Times-Age reported that Masterton's new high-flying Eagle Air service has quickly become one of Air New Zealand's most successful provincial links. A head count of passengers using the link to Auckland by the Times-Age from Monday to Friday last week found there was an average of 15 passengers on board each 19-seat flight, equating to a 79 per cent average occupancy rate across the week. Grant Kerr said he was rapt with the take-up so far. "We're very pleased with the popularity of our new service, and thank the Masterton and wider Wairarapa community for their support, which we hope will continue to ensure the future success of the service." While Masterton Mayor Garry Daniell was led to believe that the Masterton to Auckland link had the highest passenger capacity of any Eagle Air service.

The most obvious improvement to Hood Aerodrome was the construction of the $276,000 terminal building which was constructed by Masterton firm DR Borman.

By the end of the year Garry Daniell was seeking additional flights to Auckland and an extension south from Masterton to Christchurch. I think there is the potential to consider a return Auckland to Masterton flight bringing passengers who have been overseas back here once the 7.10am flight from Masterton has arrived, say leaving Auckland at 9am. We could also consider a return flight from Masterton to Christchurch leaving here at say 10.30am and returning at say midday and a flight from Masterton to Auckland at around 2pm to enable connections for overseas travel. Eagle Air’s new general manager Carrie Hurihanganui said the call had been taken on board, but passenger loads and demand were "still settling" and nothing came of his suggestions.

Eagle Air's Beech 1900D ZK-EAR at Masterton on  24 January 2011

A year after the inauguration of the service the Dominion Post reported on a celebration of the service's first anniversary. All passengers on the anniversary flight received a little goody box with chocolates and shortbread as they boarded. The Dominion Post reported that Almost 10,000 people have now used the service equivalent to half the population of Masterton. Terminal manager John Lapslie says they have serviced 583 flights in and out of the airport averaging 16-17 passengers per flight. Mr Lapslie says the flights in from Auckland are invariably full while the number on the flights out varies. He says the passenger levels have been remarkably consistent and didn't drop off much in winter. "I thought winter would be low, but it's been good all year around so it's not reliant on the weather."

Despite getting good loadings there was a lot of disquiet over the high provincial air fares with the cost of a seat between Masterton and Auckland being as high as $379 for a one-way flight. Nonetheless Masterton was loyal to the service.  Tui Breweries, commercial manager Nick Rogers, who lived in Masterton and who regularly flew to Auckland and back, told the Times Age that Despite the cost it had to be remembered there were time gains in flying out of Masterton, as opposed to travelling to Wellington first. "I can get out of bed an hour-and-a-half later and yet arrive in Auckland an hour-and-a-half earlier and coming back at night means I get home a lot earlier too." There was some small savings too. "If I fly out of Wellington it means a $30 train fare to get to and from Wellington and $30 for a taxi each way to and from Wellington airport."

In April 2012 Eagle Air announced a temporary change to the timetable with the early morning northbound and evening southbound flight replaced by a middle of the day service with the flight leaving Auckland at 10.40am and the northbound bound service leaving Masterton at 12.15pm. Carrie Hurihanganui told the Times-Age that the changes were due to maintenance requirements for an Eagle Air aircraft that serviced the route, and was scheduled to last for six weeks, from May 6 to June 18. "The small number of passengers affected by the change will be re-accommodated onto other services and Eagle Air apologises for any inconvenience caused." Ms Hurihanganui said Eagle Air was using the opportunity to trial flights that better suit the leisure traveller and offer the chance for Aucklanders to spend a weekend in Wairarapa with a new fly-in Friday, fly-out Sunday option. "We have therefore taken this opportunity to trial services to gauge leisure passenger demand including introducing a Friday night flight landing in Masterton at 7.40pm, with a Sunday afternoon flight departing Masterton at 3.15pm."

Maintenance issues continued to plague the service but in October 2012 Carrie Hurihanganui assured Wairarapa community leaders that despite recent challenges, the company had no intention of cutting its service. Ms Hurihanganui acknowledged there had been a reasonable amount of flight disruption, particularly in August when a hairline crack was found in one of its Beech 1900D aircraft and it grounded all 18 in its fleet. The company will always be conservative around safety, she said. After the cancellations some Masterton travellers thought it was "the beginning of the end of our service in Masterton", she said but this was not the case.

Beech 1900D ZK-EAF at Masterton on 13 October 2013

Ten months later Air New Zealand's regional affairs manager Ian Collier and general manager network Richard Thomson came to Masterton to break the news that the service was going to end on the 5th of February 2014. Mr Thomson said they had reviewed regional services, and the Masterton operation had reached a point where a decision needed to be made. "The service is not economically sustainable,'' he said. Mr Collier acknowledged it was "obviously hugely disappointing. We recognise the effort the local communities put in to support the services, we're very grateful for that.'' He said they would continue to work with the community to look at alternatives.

Masterton mayor Garry Daniell said the service was a wonderful asset to the Masterton people. Air New Zealand had previously told him the service was only marginally profitable but would continue. “After strong community support for both the development of infrastructure at Hood Aerodrome, and good patronage at about 70 per cent - and recently increasing. Wairarapa representatives had been in active engagement with Air New Zealand to develop the service further.'' Destination Wairarapa’s general manager, David Hancock, said "We are surprised and disappointed to hear this news, especially following all the feedback we've had from Air New Zealand to date suggesting that Wairarapa would be in Air New Zealand's fleet expansion plans and secondly following all the hard work we have been doing with Air New Zealand to grow the Auckland market.” 

The final flight was flown on Friday the 7th of February 2014 with Beech 1900D ZK-EAK operating middle of day the services EAG025 from Auckland to Masterton and EAG026 from Masterton to Auckland. 

The last flight from Masterton - Beech 1900 ZK-EAK at Masterton on 7 February 2014

Masterton was the third Air New Zealand port to lose its service following the withdrawal of flights to Oamaru in December 2009 and Wanaka in January 2013. These three centres all received one flight a day. With Palmerston North and Wellington so close it was always going to be difficult for the Eagle service to compete with cheap fares offered out of the larger centres. Ironically this was the very reason that the previous operator to service the route, Air Wairarapa, closed. 

1 comment:

  1. Final services operated by ZK-EAK...EAG025/026 AKL-MST-AKL