13 September 2015

Marlborough's Commuter Airline - Air Marlborough

Straits Air Charter Ltd was established in 1992 by Allan Graham, an experienced Air Nelson pilot, and Wellington businessman, David Jones. The company was based in Blenheim and initially used Piper Pa28R-200 Arrow ZK-FHP for charter work from Blenheim. In April 1993 Piper Pa34-200T Seneca II ZK-RUF was added to the fleet. While the company's main focus was charter passenger flights, Straits Air Charter also did freight work, offered an air ambulance service and did some pilot training.

Piper Seneca ZK-RUF at Hokitika on a charter on 14 January 1994

Most of the company's charter work was to Wellington. At this time Straits Air Charter were receiving many inquiries from people who could not get on the regular commercial flights and they were also getting a lot of reaction about Air New Zealand’s and Ansett New Zealand’s air fares being high and the company recognised the potential of developing a cut-price air service between Blenheim and Wellington. 

In early 1996 moves were made to establish a scheduled service to Wellington that was aimed at the regular business travellers to Wellington, especially those who lived in Blenheim and worked in Wellington and commuted over and back to the capital each week. To facilitate the new service Piper Pa31-310 Navajo ZK-JGA was purchased from Air Nelson. The first flight was operated on the 20th of June 1996 under the name Air Marlborough. Twice-daily flights were offered from Blenheim to Wellington and return for $140 for a daily-return ticket, $80 for a one-way ticket or $65 one-way on a 10-trip ticket. At the time Air New Zealand were charging $125 for a standard one-way ticket.

The new service was launched at a fortuitous times as Float Air had just ceased its Blue Dolphin service from Picton to Porirua Harbour and the Strait-Runner fast ferry service had ended. A $5 shuttle-van service was also offered from Blenheim to Picton to try and entice additional passengers from Picton.

Air Marlborough's Piper Navajo at Woodbourne on 5 December 1996

Late in 1996 Straits Air Charter was taken over by Rodney Harmon from Kaikoura who owned Air Tours Kaikoura Ltd. By this stage Air Tours Kaikoura were using GAF N24 Nomad ZK-NAD for whale watching. With Air Marlborough’s service to Wellington developing well the Nomad was used on their flights when passenger numbers necessitated a larger aircraft. In this guise it made a wheels up landing at Woodbourne in January 1997. Air Marlborough also leased Piper Pa31-350 Chieftain ZK-NCA from October 1997.

The GAF Nomad ZK-NAD at Kaikoura on 9 January 1998
and on its rather unfortunate landing at Woodbourne on 5 January 1997

The Dominion, 24 June 1999

The take over by Air Tours Kaikoura led to the operations of both Air Tours and Air Marlborough becoming increasingly intertwined. This resulted in the timetable being changed to a  Monday to Friday 6.00am departure from Wellington to Blenheim and with a return flight back to Wellington in the evening. On Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays these flights continued south from Blenheim to Kaikoura with return flights on Sundays, Mondays and Fridays.

On 1 January 1999 Air Tours Kaikoura and Whale Watch Air combined and a new company Wings Over Whales was formed.

Scheduled air services ceased during 1999 with the Piper Navajo going to Air Manawatu in November 1999.

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