17 November 2014

Fact or Fiction?

Frustrated Westport residents said today the Greymouth-based Air West Coast had operated a good service to Wellington, before Air NZ undercut it, forcing it out of business. Air West Coast, owned by the Gloriavale Christian Community, started flights out of Westport in 2002. In February 2007, Air NZ began twice daily services to the town, and 16 months later Air West Coast pulled the pin. Air New Zealand subsequently duplicated this service which could not economically sustain two operators. Accordingly, Air West Coast will withdraw its Westport service Air West Coast's Fervent Stedfast said at the time. It discontinued the Greymouth air service soon after. Westport has suffered hundreds of mining job losses since then, and the Holcim cement plant is earmarked to close. However, Air NZ's decision —which caught everyone off guard — has left a bad taste in people's mouths.  Westport resident Bruce Hamilton said Air NZ flights did not leave until too late, at 9.10am, meaning people arrived in Wellington too late for meetings. As a result, people had been driving to Nelson to catch a plane for some time. The previous flights by Air West Coast at least gave them a decent day in the capital, Mr Hamilton said. They (Air NZ) destroyed a perfectly good service. He suspected everyone would now fly from Nelson, which was taking business out of the West Coast and giving it to Nelson".

Source : Greymouth Star

While I have no doubt competition from Air New Zealand was a factor leading to Air West Coast pulling out of Westport, it was not the only factor. When Eagle Air, who operate the service to Westport, had made more control of their operations they were wanting to improve services to Kaitaia and Westport moving them from a single flight to two flights a day. Certainly this is what the town's leaders wanted, an improved Air NZ service rather than a smaller airline. This was the concern when Air West Coast started in 2002. Initially the service saw flights from Westport to Christchurch and Wellington but the Christchurch flights were never supported and were dropped.

Most of the traffic on Air West Coast came from Greymouth. People from Greymouth or Hokitika wanting to fly to Wellington had to go from Hokitika via Christchurch so a direct flight (with a brief stop over in Wellington) was preferable. About the time Eagle doubled their Westport service Air West Coast looked to introduce a 19-seat Dornier 228 to the run. But as it was being introduced Air West Coast was expressing a warning... The Greymouth Star of 8 March 2007 reported that "Air West Coast has bought a bigger plane (the 19-seat Dornier 228) to match Air New Zealand Link operator Eagle Air, but may pull out of Westport if patronage doesn’t improve... We believe that there will be enough traffic out of Greymouth to fill up the plane. (But) We’ll stick with Westport for a wee while to see how it goes by putting on this big plane, and see how the customer acceptance is and we’ll evaluate it as we go."

I flew Air West Coast twice, one southbound in the Chieftain... with no passengers for Westport and once northbound in the Dornier... we had about 14 passengers and stopped to pick up 1 at Westport.
On the 27th of June 2008 Air West Coast stopped calling at Westport on the flights to and from Wellington. Chief executive Fervent Stedfast said "Air West Coast established a morning and evening return air service to Wellington to benefit Westport people. Air New Zealand subsequently duplicated this service which could not economically sustain two operators. Accordingly Air West Coast will withdraw its Westport service. The airline had been running Monday to Friday from Greymouth-Westport-Wellington in the mornings, returning in the evenings. However, patronage had been slow and some days it did not come into Westport because there were no bookings. It would still be flying Greymouth to Wellington as it had no competition in Greymouth." 

Six weeks later the Greymouth to Wellington service ceased with Air West Coast citing increased costs, including a massive increase in fuel costs over the previous year, eventually making the venture uneconomic. From what I understand the overheads to have all the CAA regulations meant were also a huge expense for Air West Coast.

Air West Coast operated a single route - northbound to Wellington in the morning and a return service to the Coast in the late afternoon. That meant the plane and pilots were sitting around doing nothing all day... not a good scenario for an expensive machine. Potential airline operators beware!

Soon after Coastair started services from Christchurch to Westport via Greymouth if there were passengers offering. The service built really slowly but was building until Air New Zealand introduced a twice daily Monday and Friday service between Christchurch and Westport. There was a lot of cries about Air NZ with this but they had been in dialogue with Solid Energy for sometime about providing a service. Solid Energy staff were not allowed to fly in unpressurised aircraft after the fatal Air Adventures' Piper Chieftain crash at Christchurch. Air NZ only started the service when Solid Energy guaranteed a set number of seats per flight. Sadly this was the end of Coastair and Westport has never been connected with a flight to Christchurch since.

The final factor is Westport folk haven't always used the air services offered and ultimately this is the issue now. Capital Air Services pulled out of Westport in the 1970s because people were not using their service. Air New Zealand's Friendship service through Westport was reduced to three flights a week in the early 1980s when people were not using it! Air New Zealand's current service uses aircraft that are getting older and therefore less reliable and are becoming increasingly uneconomic. There is nothing available to replace them other than upgrading to 50 seaters. If the economics don't stack up for current flights they are not going to stack up for Air New Zealand's Q300s. It will be interesting to see who picks up Westport how they open the next chapter in Westport's aviation history.  

Westport News, 4 April 1984 - This was after Westport regained a Sunday service... Before that happened the add used to say "Use it or Lose it!"


  1. What about golden bay aie because they operate flights to karamea and do offer a karamea to wellington service?

    1. Westport could nicely tie into Golden Bay Air's services but using what???