05 July 2021

Sounds Air - 7 questions for the 7th month

Last month I wrote to New Zealand's regional airlines asking them seven questions about their airline as they offer air services to our regional centres. I have tried to make the questions generic and not commercially sensitive but at the same time offer a glimpse of our regional airlines and some of the challenges they have and how they rise above them. The first five questions are specific to each airline... the last two I'm asking all the airlines.

First of blocks is Sounds Air's CEO Andrew Crawford...

You started as managing director in December 2003 and have been responsible for the rebranded Sounds Air as it is now… There have been some big changes over the years… What’s been the thing you’ve been most proud of in the Sounds Air transformation?

Turning Sounds Air from a small operator, Wellington to Picton only, to a genuine regional airline providing a usable, reliable, affordable air transport service to regional New Zealand and providing employment for 85 fantastic staff along the way.

Air New Zealand’s withdrawal from Westport, and the Wellington-Taupo and Blenheim-Christchurch routes was the catalyst of Sounds Air expanding beyond Cook Strait. How have the new centres/routes accepted and adapted to the change to Sounds Air?

The introduction of the PC12 was a huge step up in service levels, performance levels and passenger comfort. We went from a 3 destination airline to 9 destinations and move away from Cook Strait ops only to Taupo in the North and Wanaka in the south. The buy in from the regional centres has been awesome., They take you on like you are one of them and are very protective of their service. It is a collaboration at each region we fly too.

With the introduction of these new services the airline added the Pilatus PC12 to its fleet. It certainly is an impressive aircraft. What are its pluses and minuses?

As detailed above passenger comfort and performance are great pluses. The down side is they are limited to 9 seats. They are an expensive aircraft to buy and operate and having SEIFR aircraft limited to 9 seats is the biggest issue.

Last year Sounds Air started a new service to Wanaka not without some opposition before the launch. How has the service bedded in? What are the challenges of flying to Wanaka?

The service so far has been very well supported and has been a great asset to the region. There are good numbers both ways but the challenges have been the winter inversion season where we have had to cut back the schedule to try and minimise delays to passengers. This will be over soon so the schedule will ramp up again for spring. Very pleased with how it has started.

Sounds Air is boldly looking to the future in terms of the Heart Aerospace ES-19 electric powered aircraft. What is the advantage of being one of the launch customers?

The world has an obligation to try and resolve the damage that has and is being done to the climate. Aviation is not above scrutiny in this area and Sounds Air wants to be at the forefront of making a difference for regional aviation. The technology is here now, and evolving all the time. We think we are in prime position to be a first mover, not just in NZ, but world-wide. There are huge challenges to overcome but that is the way with anything new. There is always resistance, there are always challenges, but if we don’t face them who will? We are very proud to be leading the charge I this field and are getting great support across all facets of the supply chain that will be required to get these aircraft to operation fruition.

Covid presented the New Zealand regional airlines with many challenges. What has your airline learnt and how is it stronger from these challenging times?

We went right back to zero. Stopped paying everyone but staff and reset. We had tremendous support from all out staff, from government, from local councils (Buller and Marlborough DC in particular) and airport companies (Wellington, Blenheim and Christchurch airports) plus Pilatus and UDC, our finance company. Without their support, and the support of all our passengers, it might have been a very different story. From there we regrew our business in a very slow and methodical way. Hold cash tight, revenue manage our flights and try and earn off every single sector flown. So far it’s worked but it is a long road back. Covid lockdowns permitting!

In a sentence or two how you describe your airline?

Sounds Air wants to be the main regional airline of New Zealand. Providing the spokes to the domestic hubs and leading the way with Zero Emission aviation in Australasia.

Thank you for taking the time to answer Andrew. I've loved flying Sounds Air. You certainly have a fantastic staff, I've always found them friendly and enthusiastic about flying for Sound Air. Thank you also for your support of the blog. It has been a pleasure meeting you at some of New Zealand's regional airports.

My history of Sounds Air can be found here : http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.com/2014/08/sounds-air-fast-scenic-way-to-cross.html


  1. With the Cook Straight being their bread and butter, I feel that Sounds air will always be around as they have that real niche "home base"
    Sound's Air has done well from the closure of Eagle Air... Just that the offerings were not quite in the same league as what Air Chats had in regarding population from their "home away from home" base
    Totally agree with that statement regarding the PC-12's and it does limit Sounds ability with what they can do with those current routes Westport, Taupo, Wanaka and Christchurch-Blenheim.. Can you go for the fewer seats but increase frequency but keep prices reasonable but still pay off the PC-12s? Seems like, with Taupo... There is so much they can do as what we see regarding the three flights weekly initially, now just down to the "business hours" flights.. Even pre-covid I did notice that the schedule did vary with some flights over the week dropped to due lack of patronaged, at $219 a pop, it was expensive for most people considering when Air NZ can offer, in advance... $139 one way via Auckland or (I hate the drive somewhere else...) Hour drive to Rotorua through some horrific road works (Rotorua itself) not to mention the 90% chance of thick fog from the Taupo refuse station all the way to Rainbow mountain for a $89 flight from Rotorua
    It's a shame that there are no real options around the world for new market pressurized prop aircraft with seats 10 plus where Sounds can grow those respective markets with pricing that are outside the limitations of the workhorse that the Caravans are, over the straight.
    It would have been interesting to see what the B1900s could have been in Sounds Airs livery, even a J32, anything bigger would not have suited Sounds... Although as we saw with Eagle air, those Eagle air routes never had any discount flights apart from the very small handful of "grabaseat" that Air NZ offered on flights that used the B1900s so one wonders if Sounds Air... with lower overheads could offer more cheaper seats or is the B1900 quite expensive to run and we would have seen similar pricing?
    But with this exciting new era of E-planes just over the horizon and these 19 seat aircraft... Could we see Sounds with no fuel prices, more seats and offering more competitive prices for the average joe blog.
    Is there any likely hood of someone like Air Chats or Originair getting a competitive feel, sneaking in, with their 19 seat J32/Metro and nick a route or two and offer some lower prices before Sounds gets an opportunity to get these 19 seat aircraft... It can happen as like what we saw Sounds do regarding Air2there..
    If Air NZ drop Taupo and Air Chats pick it up.. They could look at Wellington as a perfect extension

    1. "Can you go for the fewer seats but increase frequency but keep prices reasonable but still pay off the PC-12s?" ... Empty seats don't pay bills. The difference with NZ is that they have a larger business and can discount fares more... The advantage of S8 in places like TUO and WSZ is that you can fly direct there... I flew to WSZ recently. It would have been much cheaper to fly to NSN BUT then there was the cost of a rental, 2.5 hours drive each way. In the end you pay for what you want. Airlines can't afford to make a loss... look at the list of all the airlines on this blog who no longer exist!

    2. You say Air NZ offer cheap fares TUO to WLG in advance, but book anywhere even remotely close to the date, and you will pay for it. People fail to realise $219 is very reasonable for a 50min flight on a 9 seater aircraft. I've seen the complaints and people that make them have absolutely no idea about the economics of running smaller aircraft. Like Eagle with the 1900Ds. Everyone wants a $29 fare to a small regional using smaller aircraft. Its impossible and people get all up in arms over it. Its ridiculous. S8 operate more flights then 3C and to smaller, more fiddly destinations. And they have more then enough people lining up paying the fares necessary to fly into and out of the smaller destinations on smaller aircraft.

      Rumours of TUO and HKK leaving the Air NZ network are hugely over exaggerated and factually incorrect. There is no talk within the airline of such. They are important spokes in Air NZs domestic hub and spoke operations model. Rumours like that can be damaging, especially in regards to say business confidence in the regions air connectivity.

    3. Exactly Steve, there is that argument that lower seats equal more frequency as most centers would love a "Jet" A320 over an ATR 72.... Wellington to Chch and particularly centers that had a 737-200.. But don't want the dreaded "frequency" cuts...
      This example is that Sound's could offer more flights but in this case the cost to fly this PC-12 aircraft means that this example of an argument is null invalid.
      Taupo has seen this with what was initially the potential of x amount of flights to Wellington a day (like three or four flights a day) but the reality with the cost of tickets to fly them and the council subsidy for paying for anything under three passengers... But they have made it work for the business community with the 6:30am (my alarm clock) and the 7pm flights a day and it's much better than half the price for the 2 hour wait in Auckland or the hour dive through fog and road works to Rotorua which to the 'Anonymous' above or in your case Westport vs Air NZ to Nelson...
      If only there was something modern and more than 9 seats that Sounds Air could use to offset the cost per seat and make it an attractive alternative for R&R family patronage that see the initial $$$ as prohibitive and the drive to Rotorua or even Napier as a alternative to Wellington.

      I'm a Taupo resident and I am just going of what some have said here and others who work in the industry on other forums who suggest that Taupo is the worst performer on the current Air NZ network..
      I hope Air NZ never pull out (used it pre-coivd for a flight to Malaysia) and "pre covid" had built it up to almost a three daily flight with cheaper flights that the 50 seat Q300 could provide and the current new built terminal/carpark that the council are currently funding...
      But Air Chats could do a fantastic job in Taupo with a 30 seat Saab if Air NZ ever pull out and if Air Chats wanted too... With a base, could easily ad Wellington with a 19 seat aircraft if they ended up flying to Taupo..

    4. The difference between my beloved Hokitika and your beloved Taupo Fraser is that Hokitika responded to the increased frequencies with Hokitika getting to 4 and even 5 flights a day. Taupo struggled however. In the Eagle days both of these centres were hooked into the wider NZ network. S8 hasn't that luxury. I also think Hokitika is more air travel oriented due to its isolation than TUO. NZ seem to have changed that on the route to AKL but WLG for NZ was a struggle. S8 tried frequency but it depends on the locals to get in behind it. I don't think TUO locals have got in behind it like the WSZ locals for example.

      Personally I think the "replacement"airlines should develop air services from their new ports... i.e. 3C could operate services from from WAG and PPQ to CHC and WHK to WLG rather than S8 picking up these routes.

      I don't think NZ will pull the plug on any domestic ports

  2. I got a really good idea in mind for Sounds Air, it could acquire more Pilautus airplanes and deploy more routes such as Wellington to Whakatane, Wellington to Whangarei (via Tauranga), Wellington to Hokitika, Christchurch to Westport, Christchurch to Greymouth, Christchurch to Picton, Christchurch to Oamaru, Nelson to New Plymouth and Christchurch to Gore.

    Sounds Air could also acquire another Cessna Caravan and take over the Wellington to Palmerston North route, not only that Sounds Air could acquire a Cessna 441 or two and deploy routes such as Wellington to Paraparaumu and Dunedin to Queenstown.

    1. I think this comment about the PC12 is telling Scott... "They are an expensive aircraft to buy and operate and having SEIFR aircraft limited to 9 seats is the biggest issue." So I can't see them expanding rapidly especially while we continue to battle Covid. A C441 also would be an expensive buy and to operate for no real advantage over the PC12. Some routes might have potential but others won't work, eg CHC-WSZ, CHC-PCN, CHC-OAM, CHC-Gore, WLG-PMR, DUD-ZQN.

    2. WLG - PMR wont work, easy drive and excellent rail connection. And with this Government's dedication to rail, we could even see more services. Without a interline agreement, a 3rd level carrier will never make WLG-PMR work.

      DUD - ZQN tried a failed by many in the past, more recently by Kiwi Regional who were extremely over ambitious with their plans for the route. The very first day of operations saw an announcement regarding service cuts.

      WLG - WRE would never be a winner, when the 1900D service was cut, most people realised that when with a AKL transit, the shortest connection saw them in WLG only 25mins later then the direct service. (1hr45 direct) (40min WRE-AKL, 25min transit, 1hr05min AKL-WLG).

      Definitely no advantage over the PC12 by purchasing C441s. Just another engine...

    3. Yeah I love the PC-12s but I feel that they have kind of reached their potential and offer a perfect fit (for now) offering long range and high altitude flights over the current terrain being the central plateau and the mountains of the South Island that Sounds air navigate...
      I think the Caravan would be great for a connection between PMR or PPQ to the Capital with the seats available and the apparent cheaper cost.. bare in mind the competition train connection from PPQ...
      Whakatane to Wellington I feel is a "watch this space..." as in, it will be the current airliner that currently flies this route that would make something like this work with their three or so 19 seat metros on offer...
      WLG to WRE... With Air NZ offering the very lucrative A320 connection and the cheap fares on offer... Anything other than Air NZ would be seen by Air NZ as direct competition and we have seen many times in the past what a competitive Air NZ is like when they flex their muscles.... But Air Chats could make that work much better than Sounds Air with a Saab or the Metro..

      Sound Air are really stuck with anything based around that central region and any scraps that Air NZ offer them within that region... and until they get anything that is pressurized/safety/comfort over terrain and offers more than the 9 seat PC-12s and have centers that has the population to support anything more than 9 seats at an affordable price but not cannibalize current service's... (Greymouth/Westport) I feel they will struggle to grow from their "Cook straight" base than what they currently have... But for future perspective... Whanganui to Wellington could work if population and migration from Wellington happens. OAM to Well of Chch could work.... Gore (Grass runway) and a small commute to Invercargill not to mention Air NZ to 20 odd cities via CHCH or Wellington, wont work...

    4. PPQ-WLG? You have to kidding right?


    5. I agree PPQ-WLG will never work... far too close. The Capital Connection train service does all that is needed. A 12 seater on that run would be a dead loss. I wonder whether PMR-BHE might work. The PMR-NSN traffic NZ used to carry via WLG will be now on OG.

    6. Plus there is Transmission gully road finishing by end of this year (not giving my hopes up though) which will make the trip to WLG 30-40 mins. But I can easily make the trip to WLG in 50mins now and I live very close to PPQ.

      The only service currently I can see being added for PPQ is CHC. Air NZ couldn't make it work with a dash, yes. But they said they were getting half loads on an off peak hour (so ~25) so got to mean something? Have like a similar service Chathams has with AKL and I think it'll work.

  3. Some of them might have some potential another one could be a winner is CHC-TEU.
    Any that are a long road trip could work for a new air route.

    1. Doubt there is the market there... The population of Wanaka is 9000. Te Anau is less than 3000. I have the sense that Wanaka has more of a sense of connection with Christchurch... Te Anau doesn't have that

    2. There was a poll done in the Te Anau community most wanted an air route to Christchurch it was around two years ago. You are right as the population is small 2000 for Te Anau while Wanaka is over 11,500 (2020 census)

  4. Maybe WLG-HKK could be a next step?