13 February 2011

Sunair - The Big Little Airline


Sunair is one of those interesting airlines that ply our skies but despite being around for over 30 years not many people know about it. Despite this it has found its niche and continues to not only survive but to shine where so many others have failed.

Sunair Aviation Ltd was established in by Dan Power and his wife Bev in 1985. Two years later they applied to the Civil Aviation Authority for an air operator's certificate and commenced charter operations. In late 1988 Sunair started a Tauranga-Auckland service using Cessna 402B Utililiner ZK-EHS. The following year, however, when Eagle Air replaced Air New Zealand Friendship services between Tauranga and Auckland, Sunair dropped its timetable services over the same route. About the same time, by November 1988 Sunair was operating a summer service from Tauranga to Great Barrier Island. This summer schedule continued for a number of years before being restarted in 2009.

For a fuller history of Sunair's service to Great Barrier Island see

Cessna 402B Utililiner ZK-EHS taken at Tauranga on 30 December 1989

In late 1989/early 1990 Sunair purchased Island Air Safaris and their Cessna P206 Super Skylane ZK-DRD (c/n P206-0135) and took over their flights from Tauranga to Motiti Island. The Motiti Island service was initially operated as Island Air Services. The operation flew under that name during the 1989/1990 summer but by mid-1990 it operated under Sunair's own name. In addition the early fleet included Cessna 172N ZK-ELG, Cessna U206F Stationair, ZK-DFW and Piper Pa32-260 Cherokee 6 ZK-DEF.

Cessna 172 ZK-ELG at Tauranga on 26 November 1996.
Cessna 206 ZK-DFW at Rotorua on 23 January 1992

In June 1995 Sunair bought its first Piper Aztec, ZK-DIR and this was used to introduce scheduled flights between Tauranga and Napier on the 5th of February 1996. This service was extended to include Hamilton in July 1996. Piper Pa31-310 Navajo C ZK-FIL was added to the fleet to facilitate growth. In March 1997 is was announced that Hamilton-New Plymouth flights were to be introduced to provide Taranaki with a direct link to Hawkes Bay, the Waikato and the Bay of Plenty. The Hamilton-New Plymouth flights have had a mixed fortune and over the years the service has been dropped and reintroduced according to demand. On the 15th of September 1997 Sunair introduced a twice daily service between Gisborne and Hamilton. Flights from Gisborne to Napier began in early 1999 after Air Wellington ceased their East Coast service. Since then Gisborne has developed to become a core centre for Sunair’s passenger services. Rotorua was later added as a stopover on Sunair flights between Hamilton and the East Coast.

Sunair's first timetable effective 5 February 1996
Waikato Times, 5 September 1997
Piper Navajo ZK-FIL at Gisborne on 13 October 1999

In 1999 Sunair introduced two Partenavia P68Bs to their fleet, ZK-LGO and ZK-ZSP. The Partenavias did not last long in the fleet and were sold in mid 2002. Instead Sunair focused on Piper Pa23 Aztecs. Over the years Sunair has operated eleven of them; ZK-DGS, ZK-DIR, ZK-ECM, ZK-ERM, ZK-EVP, ZK-FHO, ZK-FVP, ZK-MTY, ZK-PIW, ZK-PIX, ZK-TDM and ZK-WDP which is the only aircraft not to wear titles. Of these only ZK-FHO has been retired from the fleet. ZK-WDP is currently on charter in Kiribati.

The two Partenavias - above ZK-ZSP on the 12th of October 1999 and, below, ZK-LGO on the 9th of February 2001. Both photos taken at Gisborne

Piper Aztec ZK-FVP arrives at Tauranga from Gisborne on  27 November 2015

Photos of all the Aztecs can be found at

In addition to these Sunair also operated Piper Pa31-350 Chieftain ZK-KAP between July 2003 and January 2004 and Cessna 421C Golden Eagle ZK-WLG was purchased in 1999. It was used on Sunair services and for charter work and was eventually sold in 2008 but it had not been used for some time before that. Other light aircraft used included Cessna 152 II ZK-ETY which was used from late 1992 to late 1994 and Cessna 172 ZK-ELG. These were used for pilot training. ZK-SAL Cessna 172N was part of the fleet from August 1993 until December 1994. In its last month of service with Sunair it was reregistered as ZK-KAS. Piper Pa-34-200 Seneca ZK-DCL was registered to Sunair for six months while Piper Pa-31-310 Navajo ZK-WHW was registered to the company for two months in the same year.

The Cessna 421 Golden Eagle, ZK-WLG taken at Tauranga on the 23rd of January 2002. 
Piper Chieftain ZK-KAP taken at Hamilton on the 6th of June 2003. 

In 2002 Sunair picked up Air Freight’s East Coast courier service. This involved a dedicated freighter Aztec leaving Palmerston North at 5.30am and flying through Wairoa to Gisborne. In the evening the southbound flight also called at Napier from whence the flight flew to Paraparaumu stopping at Palmerston North if there were passengers. Wairoa never appeared on Sunair’s published timetable and the stops there were for courier freight only. From the 30th of September 2002 Sunair began operating a Tauranga-Hamilton service on behalf of Origin Pacific to link with other flights over Origin’s network.

Piper Aztec ZK-FHO at Gisborne on 14 November 2007

In 2003 the company offered a New Plymouth-Palmerston North extension to their flights to New Plymouth from Hamilton. The service was not successful and it was withdrawn from the 31st of May 2004 timetable. In 2005 the freight flight south from Gisborne and Napier was extended to Wellington and this continued to be in the schedule until September 2007.

From the 30th of August 2004 the company introduced Whangarei-Hamilton flights which connected with other Sunair flights from Hamilton to Rotorua, Gisborne, Napier and New Plymouth. The service never really took off and was relaunched a number of times. Quantum Aviation, a Whangarei based flight school were appointed as the agents. Quantum students were already doing some training with Sunair in Tauranga and the connection opened up opportunities for advanced training and future employment. The flights were extended to include Kerikeri in September 2007 but according to the company timetable these flights to Northland were dropped from the 2nd of March 2009.

Sunair Timetable effective, 29 September 2008

Sunair opened its own flight training school at Rotorua on the 26th of February 2007 with the aim of training quality airline standard pilots. The course was designed to include PPL and CPL theory, 100 hours of flight time and is scheduled to last 26 weeks. Following that, the initial course will repeat while the graduating students from the first course will embark on a professional flight training course of 32 weeks which will encompass CPL flight test, a C category instructor rating and Multi engine instrument rating. Initially, the MEIF work will remain at Tauranga until students from the first courses filter through. 

In February 2008, the Navajo ZK-FIL was involved in an incident at Hawera and was withdrawn from the fleet.

In September 2008 the company changed its services from Palmerston North after losing the dedicated freight flight contract from Palmerston North to Napier, Wairoa and Gisborne. Flights were scheduled to leave Palmerston North at a more civilised hour of 7.00 am instead of the previous 5.00 am but there seemed to be little demand and the timetable shows Palmerston North was subsequently dropped from the 5th of April 2010.

In March 2009 Sunair announced that it would include Whakatane as a stopover on its flights between Gisborne/Napier and Hamilton/Rotorua/Tauranga. The demand was not there, however, and the Whakatane was not listed in the timetable effective the 5th of April 2010.

Piper Aztec ZK-ERM arrives at Whakatane on 6 November 2015

On the 14th of December 2009 Sunair introduced daily flights between Whitianga and Auckland after a 10-year absence of any operator on the route. The company announced two flights would be offered seven days a week using either Cessna 172 or Piper Aztec aircraft. The company also offered flights between Whitianga and Great Barrier Island. Cessna 172s ZK-DHN and ZK-DKK were purchased to use on these and other Sunair routes. The Cessna 172s have also been used on other company routes and were later been joined by Cessna 172s ZK-CBZ and ZK-TAB, the latter being used to conduct flying training for the Tauranga Aero Club and an on-demand service to Motiti Island.

Cessna 172 ZK-DHN arrives back to Tauranga from Motiti Island on 14 March 2016

For photos of all the Sunair Cessna 172s see

In October 2010 Whitianga was offered as a stopover on flights from Hamilton to Rotorua, Napier and Gisborne though this option has now been removed with instead flights operated from Tauranga to Whitianga and Great Barrier Island.

The crew and aircraft of the first Whitianga Auckland flight, Sunair pilots Charlie Chilwell (left) and Kevin Lloyd (right) with Cessna 172 ZK-DHN. Peninsula Post 17 December 2009.

Peninsula Post 31 December 2009
Paraparaumu was offered as a passenger destination from the 5th of April 2010 in conjunction with the courier service from Napier to Paraparaumu. Courier items from Gisborne and Wairoa were flown to Napier by Air Napier where they are transferred to the Sunair flight to Paraparaumu. From 4 June 2012 Sunair expanded their freight flights to and from Paraparaumu by offering twice daily passenger flights to and from Napier and Gisborne, the southbound evening service being the courier flight with limited passenger accommodation. However, within the next four weeks the NZ Couriers changed its destination for its freight flights from Paraparaumu to Hamilton and from 2 July 2012 all services to Paraparaumu were deleted. 

Kapiti Observer, 28 May 2012

For a photo essay on one of the courier services see

In early 2013 the Hamilton-New Plymouth route was reinstated following a request from the Taranaki District Health Board to include New Plymouth. The Health Board sought the reintroduction of the air service to transfer patients who needed non-emergency medical treatment as well as medical professionals and support people, The New Plymouth service was not well patronised and was removed from the timetable by late 2013.

Sunair's Dan Power at Whakatane

Another Cessna 172, ZK-DPN, was added to the fleet in August 2014. From the 1st of December 2014 Sunair moved the Auckland terminus of its Whitianga flights from Auckland International to Ardmore Airport. At the same Sunair introduced flights from Ardmore to Great Barrier Island as well as strengthening the Whitianga flights by removing the "two passengers required" restriction. Passengers at Ardmore are able to park for free at Sunair’s secure parking facility, while those arriving from Great Barrier Island or Whitianga who do not have vehicles can choose to either rent a car from the airport or take a $5 regular shuttle to the nearby Papakura train hub. Sunair's first flight operated on Wednesday 3 December 2014, 31 years to the day after Great Barrier Airlines’ operated their first flight between Auckland and Great Barrier Island, Sunair commenced their service from Ardmore. The first flight was operated in Cessna 172 ZK-DHN under the command of Ryan Bergman. The flight left Ardmore at 8.00am, landing at Whitianga before continuing on to the Barrier.

Cessna 172 ZK-DPN being used for training at Tauranga on 20 March 2015
The new Great Barrier Island and Whitianga services
Barrier Bulletin, November 2014
Ryan Bergman with the first passenger to Whitianga on the "new" Sunair services on 3 December 2014.
Photo : Mercury Informer

In their first summer of operation the new services from Ardmore to Whitianga and Great Barrier Island proved very popular and from 1 May 2015 these were extended by the offering of two new services between Great Barrier Island and Hamilton and Great Barrier Island and Whangarei. On the same day Whakatane was again included on flights to and from Gisborne, Napier and Hamilton.

On the 22nd of May 2015 the contract to fly bank data between Gisborne and Napier on Air Napier and from Napier to Hamilton on Sunair ended marking the end of dedicated bank data courier flights in New Zealand. This freight is now carried on Air New Zealand flights. With the loss of this business Sunair then withdrew all flights to and from Napier from the 5th of October 2015 ending 19 years of Sunair operating regular air services to the Hawkes Bay. At the same time the Great Barrier-Whangarei connection was withdrawn from the Sunair timetable after failing to generate sufficient traffic.

Loading Sunair Aztec ZK-PIW at Napier on 23 November 2011 for a courier run to Hamilton
Piper Aztec ZK-PIW at Hamilton on 23 November 2011

Sunair ended 2015 by announcing that it would introduce North Shore as a new destination in February 2016. Twice daily weekday flights are planned to and from Hamilton, Tauranga and Rotorua. In preparation for this service Sunair added Piper Navajo ZK-JGA to its fleet in January 2016.

Piper Navajo ZK-JGA at Tauranga on 13 March 2016
The North Shore service never really took off and by August 2016 the Navajo had been sold. Meanwhile, in late August 2016 Barrier Air removed its Piper Chieftains from its fleet and this led to Sunair taking over the doctors flights between Whangarei and Kaitaia.

Sunair experienced a brief glitch in December 2016 when the Civil Aviation Authority grounded the company. Sunair co-owner Dan Power was reported as saying that during a routine audit, the CAA became concerned the company's senior team was too small for the size of the business. “They had concerns around our management structure as not being adequate for the size and complexity of the business. I addressed that, and they're accepting of the fix.” The company resumed services within ten days.

In March 2017 it was announced that Sunair Aviation had become the first regional non-jet operator in the North Island to be selected as a preferred air carrier on the All of Government panel allowing the airline has already to carry government personnel.

With an Aztec based at Whangarei it seemed logical for Sunair to restart flights from Whangarei and this happened from the 3rd of April 2017 with Whangarei replacing North Shore as a destination. Flights are operated from Whangarei to Great Barrier Island, Hamilton, Tauranga or Rotorua. Sunair took over the old North Districts Aero Club building and also announced their intention to offer flight training at Whangarei.

Whangarei Leader, 29 March 2017

At the same time Whakatane was also withdrawn as a stopping point on the Gisborne-Hamilton service. April 2017 also saw the addition of Cessna 172 ZK-COS to its fleet.

On the 8th of September 2017 Sunair Aviation was grounded by the Civil Aviation Authority for the second time in nine months with the company's Air Operator Certificate suspended along with the Certificate of Airworthiness for the Sunair fleet. While the initial grounding was for only 10 days Sunair still remained grounded for 203 days, finally being granted permission to fly again in April 2018.

The first service resumed in its own right was the doctor service between Whangarei and Kaitaia, which Sunair had been able to continue to operate using leased aircraft. Scheduled services were offered again from the 28th of May 2018 with flights being offered from Hamilton or Tauranga to Great Barrier Island or Whangarei, and from Great Barrier Island to Whitianga or Whangarei.

Timetable 58, effective 28 May 2018

In November 2018 Sunair's Cessna 172, ZK-DHN was sold leaving only Cessna 172 ZK-DPN in the fleet.

On 4 April 2019 Sunair resumed flights between Hamilton and/or Tauranga and Gisborne. The first flight was operated by Piper Aztec ZK-PIW flying from Hamilton for Gisborne on the morning service. Sunair current schedule offers twice daily return flights on Thursdays and Fridays. The 2019 winter schedule has a generally much reduced schedule with scheduled flights only operating on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Sundays.

From the 5th of August 2019 Sunair increased the frequency of the Gisborne and Whangarei flights. Gisborne to Tauranga/Hamilton flights were offered on weekdays with two return flights each day. The flight from Whangarei to Tauranga/Hamilton was offered each weekday as well. Flights leave Whangarei in the morning and return in the late afternoon.

Piper Aztec ZK-PIX arrives into Hamilton on 12 April 2019

Cessna 172M ZK-CBZ (c/n 17261691) returned to the Sunair fleet being registered to Sunair Aviation Ltd on the 1st of March 2020.

Like all other domestic airlines Sunair had to close down during the Covid 19 lockdown. When Sunair resumed services its 2020 winter schedule once again saw the flights to Great Barrier Island reduced to flight on Fridays and Sundays from Whangarei and on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays from Tauranga. Interestingly there Sunday, Wednesday and Friday flights were offered from Whang─ürei to Hamilton. The Gisborne to Tauranga and/or Hamilton schedule was reduced to twice daily flights on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. 

Over the 2020/21 summer the airline returned to a more full summer schedule and were very busy with flights from Whangarei, Whitianga and Tauranga to Great Barrier Island. The summer schedule saw the airline dramatically increase its fares from Gisborne and Whangarei to Tauranga/Hamilton on the airline's business services reflecting the lack of patronage and the need to recoup its expenses. 

The 2021 winter schedule again reduced the frequency of these flights offered to thrice weekly on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Flights offered from Hamilton and Whangarei to Great Barrier Island were reduced to twice weekly on Fridays and Sundays while the flights from Tauranga and Whitianga to Great Barrier Island are offered from Sundays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. 

Sunair's 2021 winter schedule
Sunair's Piper Aztec ZK-DGS arriving at Hamilton from Whangarei on 22 September 2021

Sunair returned to Ardmore on the 16th of December 2021, with Piper Aztec ZK-FVP doing the first flight from Great Barrier Island to Ardmore as SUNAIR 16 PAPA. These flights had ceased on the 8th of September 2017 when Air Auckland had taken them over. 

In winter 2022 Sunair quietly relinquished its services to Gisborne which had operated since the 15th of September 1997 with the airline focusing on services to and from Great Barrier Island.

Sunair's 2022 winter schedule

Piper Aztec ZK-FVP at Claris airport, Great Barrier Island on 20 January 2021

In November 2020 Sunair had purchased Cessna 172 ZK-DXO. The 172 had languished in Hamilton for some years and Sunair gave it a major renovation before it entered service in September 2022. 

Sunair's latest Cessna 172 ZK-DXO at Whangarei on 29 September 2022. 

Over the years Sunair has showed itself as an operator that has looked for a niche in the face of high fuel prices, lean routes and a national carrier that increasingly offers cheap fares. By necessity it diversified its services. Its passenger services were unique in that although there was a printed timetable the operation of the timetable was very much driven by available passengers and when they wanted to fly. Routings varied with flights stopping at various airports as needed, and in the same way timings were arranged to suit the passengers with the company seeking to provide a direct province-to-province passenger service which catered mainly for business people. Pilot training, particularly offering young pilots wanting to gain twin IFR experience as part of their flying career, was an important part of the Sunair story. Many of these have gone on to the larger carriers. Courier work was another feature of Sunair trying to find its niche and like a lot of operators it felt the effect of these courier flights being replaced by road transport. In latter year the tourist/leisure flyer market was tapped by connecting Whitianga and Great Barrier to Auckland and Tauranga. Such boutique services proved to be a winner for Sunair. Sunair also looked for opportunities not only in the air but also on the ground and the company continues to maintain an engineering workshop and it manages the handling for Air New Zealand Link at Tauranga. For a number of years until early 2015 it also operated Tauranga Airport's rescue fire service. Sunair continues to find niches 

Sunair, the big little airline remains happily flying towards its 40th birthday.

Sunair's aircraft over the years have included (Bold indicated current):-
ZK-CBZ, Cessna 172M Skyhawk (c/n 17261691)
ZK-COS, Cessna 172S Skyhawk, (c/n 172S9752)
ZK-DCL, Piper PA34-200 Seneca (c/n 34-7250281)
ZK-DEF, Piper PA32-260 Cherokee 6 (c/n 32-7200007)
ZK-DFW, Cessna U206F Stationair II (c/n U20601838)
ZK-DGS, Piper PA23-250 Aztec E (c/n 27-7304959) 
ZK-DHN, Cessna 172H Skyhawk (c/n 17256507)
ZK-DIR, Piper PA23-250 Aztec D (c/n 27-4242)
ZK-DKK, Cessna 172M Skyhawk (c/n 17261742)
ZK-DPN, Cessna 172M Skyhawk (c/n 17263243)
ZK-DRD, Cessna P206 Stationair (c/n P206-0135)
ZK-DXO, Cessna 172M Skyhawk (c/n 17265417)
ZK-ECM, Piper PA23-250 Aztec F (c/n 27-8154001) 
ZK-EHS. Cessna 402B Utililiner (c/n 402B0217)
ZK-ELG, Cessna 172N Skyhawk II (c/n 17271386)
ZK-ERM, Piper PA23-250 Aztec E (c/n 27-7405435) 
ZK-ETY, Cessna 152 (c/n 15285023)
ZK-EVP, Piper PA23-250 Aztec F (c/n 27-8054053) 
ZK-FHO, Piper PA23-250 Aztec E (c/n 27-4585)
ZK-FIL, Piper Pa31-310 Navajo C (c/n 31-7712014)
ZK-FVP, Piper PA23-250 Aztec F (c/n 7854096) 
ZK-JGA, Piper PA31 Navajo (c/n 31-7612102)
ZK-KAP, Piper PA31-350 Chieftain (c/n 31-7405407)
ZK-LGO, Partenavia P68B (c/n 25)
ZK-MTY, Piper PA23-250 Aztec F (c/n 27-7654137) 
ZK-PIW, Piper PA23-250 Aztec E (c/n 27-7305089)
ZK-PIX, Piper PA23-250 Aztec E (c/n 27-4738) 
ZK-SAL, Cessna 172N Skyhawk II (c/n 17273454)
ZK-SUN, Cessna TU206A Stationair (c/n U206-0511)
ZK-TAB, Cessna 172N Skyhawk (c/n 17273811)
ZK-TDM, Piper PA23-250 Aztec F (c/n 27-7754045) 
ZK-WDP, Piper PA23-250 Aztec F (c/n 27-8054025)
ZK-WHW, Piper PA31-310 Navajo (c/n 31-437)
ZK-WLG, Cessna 421C Golden Eagle (c/n 421C-0492)
ZK-ZSP, Partenavia P68B (c/n 129)

As always I am happy to be corrected, or have more information, photos or stories to come through to be posted. Cheers, Steve, westland831@gmail.com 

1 comment:

  1. What an amazing history, hoping for another 25 years of success, I had a quick flight as a Aid worker after the earthquake, it was an amazing experience.