08 June 2019

In the Climb

There was a nice piece on Air Chats in the NZ Herald yesterday (see below). As part of it there was a graphic that said Air Chathams has 3 Convairs while until recently the airline has been operating 5. As it happened yesterday I received an email saying ZK-KFH's airframe is for sale. I heard through the grapevine that apparently ZK-CIF has also been removed from service. That leaves three in service, ZK-CIB, ZK-CIE and ZK-KFL. This would seem to indicate that the transition from the Convairs has started and this in itself will make the next months interesting as Air Chathams develops its regional air services. The article indicates ATRs in the short term with the airline still being interested in Boeing 737s.

Expressions of interest are sought for the purchase of a 1953 Convair 340/580 freighter fuselage #42. Ready for conversion to Food truck, Coffee Cart, Air BNB or Film prop.

Engines, vital equipment and  landing gear will be removed. Wings will be trimmed and assistance given to prepare fuselage for transport of Auckland Airport.

Air Chathams founder Craig Emeny knows what it's like to be in a jam. In the mid-1990s his airline was under siege from an Air New Zealand subsidiary offering cut-rate fares between the mainland and the islands. At just a decade old, tiny Air Chathams was in trouble. “I should have been done and dusted within a number of months," says Emeny, who had just committed $3 million to buying a Convair plane. "That was pretty traumatic when you're suddenly confronted with that and all that debt." But Emeny appealed to the people he had helped 10 years earlier: the cray fishers whose live product he flew out to make them more money than they'd ever known, and the hundreds of Chathams and Pitt Island residents for whom he'd provided vital links to the mainland. Air NZ subsidiary Mt Cook Airlines had halved fares and freight rates and appointed a marketing staffer for the route. But Emeny held his nerve and didn't drop his prices. His customers stayed loyal, some borrowing against crayfish quota to lend him money to hang on. "I explained that if I didn't get that I would be out. They never got that from Mt Cook. Everybody knew what was going on." With help also from the Chathams development agency, he weathered the storm. And Mt Cook Airlines, which was moving to new planes, blinked and Emeny had the route to himself. "One of the things that I do right was that I had been fairly open and had talked to Mt Cook about whether we could do things together. We were just in different places about what doing things together meant." Although Emeny stresses that the relationship with Air New Zealand is now a good one, he says nobody can understand the power of what a large company can do until they start exercising it. "When it does happen you do under-stand what's happening — you either give up or have a crack" The respite was short-lived. The following year Emeny had a bruising fight with the Civil Aviation Authority over the licensing of pilots to fly Metroliner planes. It turned out to be a paperwork issue and Air Chathams survived that one too, despite a grounding that lasted nearly two months and reportedly cost it $600,000. Years later, in Tonga when the political environment suddenly shifted, it was forced to pull out there. But in a country where dozens of small airlines have failed, Air Chathams is still flying — and growing. 

Flying crayfish 
Raised in Stratford, Taranaki and trained as an RNZAF engineer, working on everything from DC3s to Skyhawks, Emeny got his pilot's licence in 1979 and was drawn to the Chathams by a job flying the 38km hop from Pitt Island to Chatham Island. In 1984, when he was 28, he saw the opportunity to set up his own airline with wife Marion and fly much further — to New Zealand, as the mainland is known among Chatham Islanders. The airline would use a Cessna Super Skymaster to fly live crayfish, which would fetch up to five times the price of those processed on the Chathams. "A lot of people thought you couldn't do it because of the distance, the time and the product sensitivity. Fortunately they were wrong. The airline was founded on helping break a crayfish processing monopoly." The demand from Chatham Islanders for seats on the planes grew, and they initially had to fit in around the main freight services. But charter services enabled Chatham Islanders to attend rugby matches, races and family occasions. Aircraft also operated for sight-seeing, emergencies - including flying a great white shark attack victim back to the mainland in 1996 - and offshore search and rescue work. There was the odd scrape on the Chathams' rugged airfields. The worst accident was a water ditching near Pitt Island in 1999, from which four passengers and the pilot escaped safely. Expansion to a modest mainland network was steady. Emeny says in order to make the Chathams-mainland service viable, he had to expand elsewhere. That included freight operations throughout New Zealand and, around 2005, the airline made its foray into the Pacific, flying charter services in Tonga. As Chathams Pacific, it went on to be the kingdom's domestic carrier' until 2013. That came at a good time as the global financial crisis was biting in New Zealand, and Tonga was a popular posting with staff. But it came to an end when a political shift saw the Tongan Government start its own airline with a Chinese plane. But throughout, serving the Chathams, population 600, was at the forefront. "We kept on thinking how do we make this thing work, how do you make it viable? The Chathams were never strong enough to support the operation. "To do that I had to be doing other things." 

Filling the gaps 
Those other things came in the form of air charter tours around the country and freight work, but Emeny says the airline wasn't in great shape. Then in 2015 an opportunity was presented when former foe Air NZ announced that it was pulling out of Whakatāne, Kaitaia and Westport. It was closing Eagle Air and moving from 19-seater Beechcraft planes to larger aircraft. The economics weren't stacking up for the national carrier, but for second-tier airlines like Air Chathams there was a great opportunity. The airline had also found a base at Auckland Airport, although its registered head-quarters remain on the Chathams - just over two hours away. With enthusiastic backing from locals, it swooped into Whakatāne. "For us Whakatāne was a test case," says Emeny. "Air NZ didn't really know about us, they didn't realise how effective we could be in those markets." Air NZ left behind some equipment and, importantly, some intellectual property which helped enormously. Air Chathams deployed Metroliners on the Whakatāne route. Air NZ handled 29,000 passengers a year on the service at one stage, but that fell to 18,000 around the time it departed and now Emeny's airline serves about 25,000 passengers a year in and out of Whakatāne. A year later, another opportunity came up. "Air NZ saw that it worked and we kept very dose with them in a very good way so that when Whanganui happened they were very keen for us to be involved." Air Chathams flies between the city of 45,000 and Auckland, and Whanganui mayor Hamish McDouall says the airline has built huge loyalty. "They have personalised it they're not a behemoth that we struggle with," he says. To fly south on Air NZ, locals must drive to another airport. Palmerston North, an hour away, is the closest. Air NZ's withdrawal hurt the city. "We did feel betrayed," says McDouall. "It was a sucker punch at the time." Air Chathams again filled the gap when Air NZ announced it was pulling the pin on Kapiti-Auckland services last year, a move that sparked a bitter local backlash and ignited political heat Emeny has sympathy for the bigger airline. The Kapiti operation was expensive to operate for Air New Zealand and came with high air traffic control costs, which his airline now faces. John Nicholson, chief executive of Aviation NZ, says Air Chathams plays a very important role in connecting regional New Zealand. "If we look at regional growth in New Zealand, and the opportunities for regions to leverage off tourism growth for example, Air Chathams can play an increasingly important role." 

Future flight path 
At Air Chathams' Auckland base around the middle of the afternoon, things are bustling. The tiny operation Craig Emeny founded with his wife Marion has grown to an airline of 120 people — 35 pilots, 35 engineers, cabin crew and back office staff. Family is still at the heart of the airline. Marion Emeny helps look after the accounts. "She pays the bills, I normally create them," says her husband. Sons Duane and Matthew fly for the airline, which is about to embark on its next big mission: scheduled inter-national flights to Norfolk Island. Again, it’s a case of filling the gap where others have called time. In the hangar, work is being done to modify one of the Convairs for the flights that begin in September. Duane Emeny expects flights to appeal to group travellers, building on charter work the airline has already done. Flights will be once a week at first but there are hopes of increasing frequency. The airline is buying ex-Air NZ ATR planes as it phases out its Convairs, which are being scrapped. It’s also shopping for Boeing 737s. But a move into the jet age will only happen if the planes can land on the Chathams, and that depends on extending the runway there. The 1360m strip needs to be lengthened by another 300m to 400m, and funding could come from the Provincial Growth Fund — a decision that is expected to be made soon. Expansion would fuel tourism on the islands, where limited accommodation and round-trip air fares of around $900 limit numbers to about 2000 visitors a year. The airline is also finalising an interline agreement with Air New Zealand following upgrades to its booking system. This will allow Air Chathams tickets to be sold through Air NZ and will smooth baggage flow. While there have been reports that the Provincial Growth Fund fund once looked at investing in a regional airline, it wasn't Air Chathams, says Craig Emeny He says the airline is not looking for external investors. Two years ago Emeny was named an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to aviation and the Chathams community in the Queen's Birthday Honours. "Our future is as a family airline with two sons involved in it — we've never looked for outside capital," he says. Retaining control means it is able to stay loyal to the people who shared the financial risk in the early days of Air Chathams. "Those things are never forgotten —that's where our heart is."

Source : NZ Herald, 7 June 2019


  1. Brilliant well written article -just didnt want to pay for it :) Was stoked to be able to read it. Very interesting comments on the Air NZ interline agreement. That could make things really good going forward!

  2. As I have always said, Air Chathams will be NZ's 2nd level regional carrier. I would be suprise that might see some more ATR72-500's and/or some Q300's going to Air Chathams.

    I am glad that Air Chathams is making the moving to have 2 way reservation connection with Air NZ's CARINA reservation system.

  3. Nah fellas, I land 737s there all the time in P3D XD