04 May 2014

Mount Cook Airline and its Air War with Air Chathams

In August 1990, following the announcement of Safe Air’s closure of its air freight and airline services, the Chatham Islands’ Local Authority Trading Enterprise Board chartered Mount Cook Airline to operate a temporary air service between the Chatham Islands and the mainland until a permanent service was established. The first service was flown from Christchurch on the 1st of October 1990 with Hawker Siddeley 748 ZK-MCA flying the return service. During the month a Christchurch-Chathams return flight was flown on Mondays with additional flights being operated from Wellington on the 4th and 25th of October. Given the rapid shut-down of Safe Air, some early flights were flown for Mount Cook by Air New Zealand Fokker F27-500 Friendships ZK-NAN and NAO and Air New Zealand crews with the flights flown under Mount Cook callsigns.

The Local Authority Trading Enterprise Board received 10 applications to take over the Chathams’ air service including Ansett, Vincent Aviation and Fieldair Freight and Mount Cook Airline and it was Mount Cook that finally secured the contract to operate the Chathams’ service using their Hawker Siddeley 748s. On Saturdays Mount Cook operated a Christchurch-Chathams-Christchurch service while on Tuesdays a Christchurch-Wellington-Chathams and return service was operated. Hawker Siddelelys ZK-CWJ and ZK-MCA most commonly operated the route. While the 748 offered increased passenger it had less room for freight. This reduction in cargo capacity was somewhat offset by the rise of Air Chathams.

Mainstay of Mount Cook Airline's Chatham Island service was Hawker Siddeley 748 ZK-CWJ seen here at the Chathams on 13 October 1992 

Mount Cook Airline's timetable, October 1992

When Mount Cook began operating the service Air Chathams were using a ten-seat Beech Queen Air for passenger and freight services from the Chathams to Christchurch, Wellington and Napier. In August 1991 the Queen Air was replaced by a 15-seat turboprop Beech 99 in August 1991 and in September 1993 Air Chathams’ added a Fairchild Metroliner III to its fleet. Unlike the Mount Cook service the Air Chathams’ service was unsubsidised.

Mount Cook Airline's timetable October 1993

ZK-CWJ again, at the Chathams in July 1993
Both Mount Cook and Air Chathams experienced a down turn in traffic in and this resulted in an air war developing between the two companies. Mount Cook discounted its fares and from the 5th of December 1994 Mount Cook sought a greater share of the cargo market by boosting its freight services by operating up to five services a week to Wellington or Christchurch with Hawker Siddeley 748s flying twice a week and chartered Metroliners doing three flights a week from Wellington. Mount Cook Airlines’ Product Manager, John Whittaker told the Chatham Islander, the local newsletter, that there had been an increase in goods, particularly fish, being freighted from the Chathams. 'We are responding to market demands for more freight space, and hope to boost growth further by enhancing services. The airline's HS 748 aircraft has the ability to carry up to four and a half tonnes of freight each flight."  Malcolm Clunie was appointed as a dedicated freight representative for the services.

Air War - 30% of all fares... The Chatham Islander, 8 November 1994

The Chatham Islander 6 December 1994
Operating 748s and Metroliners to the Chathams, 5 days a week... Mount Cook Airline's timetable May 1995

Air Chathams lost close to $400,000 fighting Mount Cook Airline but in the end Air Chathams was to prevail. While it had the advantage of being locally-based the main reason for Air Chathams’ victory was that in late 1995 Mount Cook Airline announced that it would replace its Hawker Siddeley 748s with 66-seat ATR-72s. In October 1995 The Chatham Islander reported that Mount Cook had advised that they were still assessing their service to the Chathams but the current HS748 aircraft would continue to operate until March 1996.

In the event the service did not last that long. The Chatham Islander of 9 January 1996 reported that the Mount Cook service would end on the 29th of January 1996. The airline said, Support for the airline's freight and passenger service on the route had not met expectation during past 12 months and would not be economic with the airline’s new ATR-72 aircraft. Passengers booked to travel with Mount Cook Airline would be accommodated on the Air Chathams service. Chatham Islands mayor Pat Smith said islanders were not surprised by the airline decision and were not bitter about the lost service. The community was grateful to Mount Cook for coming to its rescue more than four years ago when it only received up to three flights a fortnight. The airline provided up to four flights a week at times. “When Mount Cook bought their new aircraft airline, we knew they were not designed to cater for the islands and clientele on the service was declining," he said. “A local company, Air Chathams, has been pushing the market and being island-owned and based, it really had the edge."

Mount Cook Airline operated the final service to the Chatham Islands on the 29th of January leaving the door open for the expansion of Air Chathams.

For links to other air services to the Chathams see...

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