17 August 2016

Sounds Air Flying High

Short of sourcing their own fuel supply, the owners of Marlborough airline Sounds Air have taken every step to ensure their business flies or falls on its own merits. Reacting to the suggestion the company should invest in oil, all airlines are beholden to it after all, managing director Andrew Crawford shrugs. "Perhaps," he says, clearly exasperated by the line of questioning. A joke, sure, but one that reflects the steps taken by the company to bring other previous uncontrollables, like maintenance fees, under their wing. Sick of the delays contractors were taking with their growing fleet, the owners of Sounds Air simply created another company, Sounds Aero Maintenance. "We were getting bigger and bigger and we couldn't find anyone who was suitable to maintain the fleet when we wanted it maintained, so we thought, 'why don't we do it ourselves'," Crawford says. That was 2008. Close to a decade later, Sounds Air is still charting an upward trajectory, adding new routes dropped by the national carrier Air New Zealand and boasting record passenger numbers. In 2003, when Crawford joined the company, the airline had a single 12­-seater Cessna Caravan flying one route, between Picton and Wellington. That year 14,000 people flew Sounds Air, opting out of the beautiful three-­and­-a-­half hour drudgery of the ferry for the much faster scenic flight across Cook Strait. "It's one of the main reason people fly with us," Crawford says. Since then, passenger numbers have increased massively. An estimated 100,000 people are expected to fly Sounds Air this year, up from 78,000 the year before. This comes after the Marlborough airline swooped in to pick up flights Air New Zealand dropped as a result of a regional restructure last year. As a result, Sounds Air was able to expand its fiefdom, adding flights between Westport and Taupo to Wellington as well as the Blenheim­ to Christchurch sector it started flying at the beginning of August. But Crawford is loathe to attribute this success to the cost­-saving mechanisms of Air New Zealand, saying Sounds Air was in expansion mode before the reshuffle. It was, however, a welcome boost, he says. With the new routes came more planes, four Pilatus PC-­12s, the nine-­seater, single-turbine beauties whose inclusion has brought total fleet numbers to nine, alongside five Cessna Caravans. Single­-engine planes are at the core of the Sounds Air business model; they save on fuel and, safety­-wise, Crawford is adamant they are just as reliable. "We base our entire business on a single-engine turbine. When you look at the facts, the accident rate between single-engine turbines and twins, there's no difference." He also laughs off the suggestion that the smaller planes might be more susceptible to turbulence, something which might scare cautious flyers out of choosing to fly with the company. "There are a few comments, but then they get off and go, 'that was so much better than I thought it was going to be', and then once you've got them once, they go, 'that's great, it's no problem'." He puts this down to the fact the PC-12s tend to fly higher than other domestic services, routinely cruising at between 18,000 and 25,000 feet, a lofty enough altitude to evade the worst of the weather. Sounds Air pilots are also highly trained and, he says, more flexible in their landings than other providers, tailoring their approaches to suit the conditions. "If it's a really windy northerly in Wellington, we come in slow and high and then get down to the ground quicker, instead of barrelling in at a certain speed, or a certain time we put the flaps down. "We fly to the conditions." Consequently, companies that used to ban their staff from flying single­-engine planes have come around, succumbing to the Sounds Air ethos, which Crawford says is also defined by their dedication to service. There are no cabin crew on the flights, the planes are too small for that. What he means is the willingness to put the needs of the customer first by making it as easy to book as possible and dropping the penalties other airlines dole out for changing fares. "If someone turns up to our gate at Wellington Airport two hours early and wants to get an earlier flight, we'll move them for free. Why wouldn't we? It gives us a chance to sell the seat later in the day," he says. "You go to other airlines, 'oh, sorry, that'll be another $150'." This commitment to service,­ which Crawford says is the thing passengers most frequently remark on, is one of the reasons, combined with the direct nature of the routes they fly, the airline has done so well. Getting into a price war with other airlines like Air New Zealand and Jetstar, whose economy of scale means they can sell cheap fares at a loss, is out of the question, every seat has to pay its way for Sounds Air. "I don't know how that's allowed to happen, that these airlines are allowed to sell their product so cheaply," Crawford says. "All it does is create a monopolistic society, where the rich get richer and the poor have to suck it up. "In other parts of the world you're not allowed to do that, you're not allowed to sell for less than what it costs, because all you're doing is driving the small fella out of business." While the topic obviously frustrates him, it seems equally clear that Sounds Air, one of the "small fellas" of the New Zealand aviation industry, is far from being priced out of the market. From the outside, the company and its flying progress have all the hallmarks of a business success story, but try telling that to Crawford. The Sounds Air director simply shrugs, admits he is proud of what the company has achieved, but then deflects attention by saying people are only interested in aviation because of its sex appeal. It is a hard industry to make money in, aviation, the landing fees are astronomical, combine that with staffing ­- Sounds Air now employs 65 people -­ maintenance and fuel and the costs begin to add up. A tough nut to crack, but the Marlborough airline, which was started in 1986 by Diane and Cliff Marchant, seems to be making a good go of it. Looking to the future, Crawford says he is excited about some of the opportunities the airline hopes to take advantage of, including a government contract for air travel which they are in the middle of tendering for. The Cessna Caravans, which were originally commissioned by FedEX in the United States, are also perfect planes for shifting freight. Sounds Air already moves products but the demise of some mail services means they are being approached by more and more companies who want to shift perishables, lobsters and fresh blood for hospitals around the country. Throw in expansion on their existing routes, the company hopes to add in a lunch-time service to complement the morning and evening slots on the new Blenheim to Christchurch sector, and the future looks bright for Sounds Air. From an airline that started as a tourism venture getting people in and out of the Marlborough Sounds, the company has carved itself a niche in New Zealand aviation. "It's been a challenge," Crawford says. "No doubt about that, but any small business owner would tell you the same."

1 comment:

  1. Well done Sounds Air, you deserve every success!