08 March 2020

NZ's Northern Most Air Service - Part 3 - A Conversation with Barrier Air's Management

On Monday I had a chance to sit down and have a chat with Barrier Air’s Chief Operating Officer. So maybe, like you me, you are wondering what a COO does… Basically they are a senior executive tasked with overseeing the day-to-day administrative and operational functions of a business, and as Grant says, “I’m fascinated by making an airline work.”

As the day unfolded I also got to chat with Nick Pearson, Barrier Air’s Chief Executive Officer, Matt Cameron, the Chief Pilot, and Alex Griffin, my pilot on my flight to Kaitaia and back.

Barrier Air's Matt Cameron, Grant Bacon and Nick Pearson

Barrier Air Cessna 208 Grand Caravan ZK-SDD taken at Kaitaia on 2 March 2020

My first discussion topic with Grant was Kaitaia. But first, a little history. Barrier Air picked up the Kaitaia service when Air New Zealand pulled the plug in late April 2015. Grant says, “Kaitaia was taken as an opportunity.” At that stage Barrier Air were using Piper Chieftains which proved unreliable and didn’t get the passenger appeal the airline hoped for. Frequency dropped and loadings slumped to 1s and 2s. That changed with the introduction of Barrier Air’s first Cessna Grand Caravan ZK-SDB which began services to Kaitaia on the 11th of August 2015 and Great Barrier Island services on the 12th. With the removal of the Piper Chieftains from Barrier Air’s fleet the Kaitaia schedule was reduced to a single Monday to Friday Kaitaia-Auckland early morning flight with a Friday evening flight, and a Sunday to Friday early evening Auckland to Kaitaia service.

Meanwhile, the management at Barrier Air had changed and with Nick Pearson appointed as Chief Executive things started to change. Lessons were learnt from the Barrier Air’s first days as Nick and the Barrier Air team worked solidly to improve standards in all aspects of the airline’s operation and move it to an all turbine operation. The success of the airline’s programme was reflected in Barrier Air growing its passenger numbers and gaining passenger appeal and this lead to the purchase of two further Caravans, each of them with a G1000 GPS glass cockpit suite and Garmin integrated autopilot systems

Twelve months ago today, on the 4th of March 2019, Barrier Air added an additional six return flights a week to its Auckland and Kaitaia schedule thereby giving Kaitaia a daily service. The new flights, depart Auckland for Kaitaia at 11.00am and the return flights depart Kaitaia at 12.40pm and operated daily except Tuesday. On the 30th of July 2019 a Tuesday flight was also added to the midday schedule giving the current 13 flights a week between Auckland and Kaitaia with a second Friday evening flight to Kaitaia being added to the schedule if the evening flight is booked out early on. 

Grant says the Caravan has been the turning point for Barrier Air. People want their aeroplane “to have a staircase and an aisle. The Caravan is reliable and marketable. And it is getting great passenger appeal from the locals.” As I flew to Kaitaia I heard a local passenger heading home waxing eloquent to one of the cyclists about the Barrier Air service, “It's a great service, so convenient.”

The addition of the extra seven flights a week “has been fantastic and growth just keeps happening,” Grant says. “The Kaitaia economy is interesting and it’s growing well for a small provincial town. There is a feeling of buoyancy and there’s heaps happening. There is a new shopping precinct, there are a lot of new people living there and in the nearby bays and beaches. More recently we have been taking weekend away fliers to Kaitaia, flying north for the weekend, getting a rental car to go exploring and then flying back on Sunday or Monday. We’re also aware of new business prospects in the area.” 

When I checked in for the Kaitaia flight four bikes were being dismantled. Grant tells me that more and more people are cycling from Cape Reinga to Bluff. In Kaitaia a shuttle company picks the cyclists up and takes them to the Cape. In the last 4 weeks 100 bikes and their cyclists have flown into Kaitaia.

Barrier Air Cessna 208 Grand Caravan ZK-SDC taken at Great Barrier Island on 8 April 2019

While the Kaitaia flights are growing rapidly in popularity the Auckland to Great Barrier Island service remains Barrier Air’s main route. Great Barrier Island has experienced massive growth and it’s been a busy summer. Our biggest day was 15 flights from Auckland to Great Barrier Island. Grant says the airline has “really focused on getting Aucklanders to experience Great Barrier Island. It’s a good, local ‘overseas’ destination that you fly to from an international airport and it’s off the grid! People love the Barrier and there are a growing number of accommodation providers giving different options for people wanting to get away from it all. Often our flights are full both ways, especially with weekend traffic. Freight is also growing and two supermarkets have deals with Barrier Air to fly groceries to the Barrier. You can have anything from 6 to 60-70 boxes a day.”

One of the things I asked Grant about was ATC delays at Auckland and having to hold. I also talked to Alex, my pilot for the day, about this. Alex told me the first flight to the Barrier is always flown IFR. Sometimes the reality and the forecast don’t match and so once the first flight has been flown the pilot information is fed back to Barrier Air’s operations. So on the question of holding Grant said, When the flights are operated VFR they may have to hold. Alternately they can fly the IFR and do the ILS. That costs but, if it saves 15 minutes hold it is worthwhile. We have worked with Airways and “Airways have confidence in how we are doing things” Grant said. Alex confirmed this, saying, “we can come down the ILS faster than an ATR.” The airline’s reservation system presumes IFR flights and the Caravan’s thirteenth seat is only able to be booked a day or two ahead when it is sure that the flight will be operated VFR.

Barrier Air also fly to Great Barrier Island from North Shore. There are four flights a week at present. Grant says it is quite seasonal but is very full during the summer and on Fridays and Sundays. Maybe if there was another Caravan…

Barrier Air at North Shore - Cessna Grand Caravan ZK=SDC on the 17th of December 2018

Coming in on the conversation was Matt Cameron, Barrier Air’s Chief pilot. He is also enthusiastic about the Caravan. “Having more than one Caravan was the game changer for Barrier Air. The Caravan is incredibly reliable with a dispatch rate internationally of about 99% and our experience would match that - that’s with the Caravan possibly operating for 7 to 9 hours a day. For every hour flown money is put aside for maintenance so there is always money for maintenance. Most maintenance is done at Flight Care in Napier with the checks being done every 200 hours. When the Caravan is done there a swarm of engineers work on it so all the checks are done it can be returned to service as quickly as possible.  The Caravan is incredibly reliable but for the other niggles that come up between servicing at Napier support is provided by Oceania at Ardmore.” Barrier Air remains committed to ensure the high standards of safety and ensuring the aircraft are presented looking good. There’s no immediate plans to repaint ZK-SDB at present.

Also in on the conversation was Nick Pearson, Barrier Air’s Chief Executive Officer. He acknowledge the airline “needs more aeroplanes” as he looks to the airline carrying 70,000 passengers this year. When I asked larger aircraft and what would be available and suitable he suggested, that while Barrier Air aren’t looking at new aircraft, the new Cessna SkyCourier turboprop and the RUAG Dornier 228 are both interesting and would be ideal for both Great Barrier Island and Kaitaia.

One of the big challenges facing the airline is pilots. Air New Zealand is hungry for pilots and so it would be nice to be able to hang on to our pilots for longer. As for Alex he is loving the Barrier Air experience. After doing his training in Christchurch he was instructing in Australia. He said “you get to know the Great Barrier locals… not so much on the Kaitaia run” and it’s a good mix of VFR and IFR… “I did four IFR approaches into Great Barrier Island in Sunday.”

As for the future, they all said, “we need more planes.” And for future routes, Grant said, “We have a few ideas but we would want to be cautious.” A good attitude. What is clear Barrier Air has been brought to a high level of professionalism and high standards. It’s got a plane and a formula that is working well. So, as for the future, watch this space.

My full profile on Barrier Air, which has been updated, can be found here... http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2015/08/barrier-air-new-name-to-barrier-and.html

A big thanks to Barrier Air for the chat and for the opportunity to fly with them to Kaitaia

For bookings and more information see


  1. Enjoyed this piece Steve, along with your journey and camera work. lived north of Kaitaia for many years, was disappointed when Air NZ dropped out and definitely not impressed with Barrier Air start up with their proposed aircraft, so not surprised take up was lacking. Moved away now but wouldn't have hesitated to take up a flight with BA as they now operate.

  2. And Barrier Air certainly acknowledge the start up issues... But those days are clearly behind them. The locals are really embracing the Barrier Air service as their airline, their service and Barrier Air are very committed to Kaitaia

  3. "We need more planes" Wonder if they'll get anything that isn't a caravan, my thoughts would be not, probably just 1-2 more caravans would be fine for them over the next couple of years as a steady growth. Maybe they could look in to Auckland-Hamilton flights again? But good to see they're doing well!

  4. There are two problems with Hamilton. The first is fog... If the plane can't depart due to fog and it has got full flights to the Barrier the airline is stuck. The second issue is the expressway to Auckland is about a year away from being finished... that will put pay to any air service to Auckland having any hope of working.