09 July 2017

Air Nelson - Part 1 - The Nelson-Wellington Commuter Airline

The Nelson-Wellington Commuter Airline

Air Nelson traces its origins back to Nairn Aviation. In 1976 Robert Inglis and Nicki Smith helped Harry Jenkins establish Associated Aviation in Paraparaumu. Two years later they established their own Motueka-based flying school, Associated Aviation (Motueka). In 1980 they, along with Harry Jenkins, bought Nairn Aviation and changed the flying school and air charter operator's name to Associated Aviation (Nelson). This Nelson-based company was later sold to Martin Butler who gave it the name Air Nelson before he sold the company back to Associated Aviation (Motueka). In 1985 Robert and Nicki decided to concentrate on developing Motueka Air Services and so Associated Aviation (Motueka)’s airline operation was split from the flying school and the airline was formed into a new company, Motueka Air Ltd. Air Nelson became a division of Motueka Air and offered charter, scenic tours, flight training and aerial photography from Nelson. A number of Cessna single engined aircraft were used including Cessna 152 ZK-ELV, Cessna 172s ZK-EOK and ZK-EOX and Cessna 206 ZK-DFW.

Cessna 152 ZK-ELV at Motueka at 4 February 1989

Cessna U206F Stationair ZK-DFW at Palmerston North on 24 February 1985

Following on the from success of the parent company's Motueka air service Air Nelson began scheduled flights between Nelson on Wellington on the 16th of December 1985. At this time Air New Zealand and Air Albatross were offering numerous flights on the route with Friendships and Metroliners. Explaining his company’s rationale Air Nelson’s managing director, Mr Robert Inglis, said, "There is no intention to rapidly expand the service. We are interested in being complementary to the other airlines at peak times. We are also interested in supplying multi-engined aircraft for charter work for companies, sports and special interest groups." The first flight was operated under the command of chief pilot Bob Schmuke using Piper PA31 Navajo ZK-NSN. Initially two return flights were flown on weekdays and one return flight on both Saturday and Sunday with ticket prices of $55 being lower than both the company’s competitors.

Air Nelson's first aircraft, Piper PA31 Navajo ZK-NSN at Nelson on 20 January 1986

Air Nelson’s entry into the market was fortuitous. Four days after the launch of scheduled service Air Albatross was placed in receivership and ceased operations resulting in a large number of passengers trying to book on the newly established Air Nelson. Robert Inglis told the Nelson Evening Mail, "Most of our Christmas flights have been booked for the last month. We're putting on as many special flights as we can within the limits of staff duty hours and wise operating practices." Asked if his firm decided to begin the Nelson-Wellington run because it believed Air Albatross was going to fold, Mr Inglis said: "That's not the reason. We had observed throughout the last year that there was a gap in the timetable. We were also influenced in the decision to start by the fact that Air Albatross schedules seemed to be very unreliable. We've never seen ourselves as another Air New Zealand or Air Albatross. We're just trying to provide an alternative service at peak times.”

Air Nelson timetable number 1, effective 16 December 1985

By the end of January the service had grown to two return flights each morning and evening using the company’s Navajo and a leased Cessna 402 with the company looking for a larger aircraft. In 1986 two Piper Aztecs, ZK-DIO and ZK-PIX were added to the fleet to provide additional capacity on the Nelson flights as well as providing back-up for the Motueka Air Services flights from Motueka to Wellington.

Air Nelson's two Piper Aztecs that were used to provide additional capacity on the Nelson-Wellington service... Above, ZK-DIO taken at Nelson on 5 February 1989 and below ZK-PIX taken on 4 February 1989

The “larger aircraft”, which did not eventuate for another 12 months, were two 10-seater Piper PA31 Chieftains, ZK-NSO and ZK-NSP which arrived in April and May 1987 to cater for the traffic which had been steadily growing on the Nelson-Wellington route. The new aircraft enabled five return weekday flights to be operated. A lesser weekend schedule was also operated.

Piper PA31 Chieftain ZK-NSO at Nelson on 21 January 1991

With its location at the top of the South Island bounded by Cook Strait and mountains to the south Nelson has always been air minded. At the same time as Air Nelson introduced its two Chieftains Pacifica Air introduced services from Nelson to both Wellington and Christchurch using a Beech Super King Air. Robert Inglis stated his belief that there was only room for one alternative airline to Air New Zealand flying the Nelson-Wellington route and only time will tell if the new Nelson-based airline Pacifica Air will be successful. "We are not competing in the same market, Air New Zealand and Pacifica Air offer a fast, pressurised and turbine-powered aircraft service, and our place in the market offers cheaper fares," he said. He puts this down to more economically-run aircraft. The company intends continuing its five flights a day service between Nelson and Wellington.

The arrival of the Chieftains saw the introduction of Air Nelson’s smart maroon and silver colour scheme giving the company a good corporate image. At this time Air Nelson also tapped into growing demand for charter from business people, special interest groups and sports teams. They also operated air ambulance flights for the Nelson Area Health Board for patient transfers and other emergency requirements.

Air Nelson charter...

The Nelson-Wellington Commuter Airline
Air Nelson timetable, effective 1 September 1987

An Air Nelson advertising supplement from the Nelson Evening Mail of 10 February 1988 showing the fleet, the interior of a Chieftain and the staff.

In July 1988 Air Nelson and Hamilton-based Eagle Air announced they had joined forces to begin a regional network linking Nelson with Auckland, Hamilton, Napier, New Plymouth, Palmerston North and Wellington. At the same time it was announced that in November 1988 Air Nelson would extend its services to the West Coast operating a Wellington to Nelson, Westport and Greymouth service in the morning and returning along the same route in the afternoon with a seven seat Piper Navajo.

In their joint statement, Air Nelson’s managing director Mr Robert Inglis and Eagle Air’s general manager Mr Don Good said the move meant "unprecedented commercial co-operation between two New Zealand airlines." The agreement saw Air Nelson move onto Eagle Air's Qantas-developed computer reservation system with Air Nelson taking over the Palmerston North-Nelson service from Eagle Air. "Eagle and Air Nelson's aircraft are tailored to give these routes a high frequency service, allowing the consumer to fly at a departure time convenient to the operational and economic needs of the airline." The strengthening of ties heralded a new era of co-operation between airlines facing the prospect of potentially high cost increases from the Airways Corporation and airport authorities "which the New Zealand consumer in today's environment, especially in the regional centres, will not and cannot pay".

The statement said Air Nelson would restructure its operations to improve efficiency and enhance its service. “Motueka Air and Air Nelson would merge, and be upgraded to a full Piper fleet of Chieftains and Navajos. Its services to Wellington will thus be considerably enhanced." Air Nelson would also open its own maintenance division in Nelson. "Air Nelson takes over the mantle of New Zealand's largest Piper Chieftain operator from Eagle, who at one stage operated four of these aircraft and had built up a great deal of experience over 11 years of owning, operating, and servicing these workhorses of the commuter air business," it said.

For a post on Motueka Air Services see

There were two other pieces of news announced in July 1988. First was the news that Air Nelson would also open its own maintenance division in Nelson. The other announcement was the news that Air Nelson had negotiated a contract with Ansett New Zealand to handle its freight on the Nelson-Wellington run. 

Air Nelson took over Eagle Air's flights between Nelson and Palmerston North on the 1st of August 1988 with three flights each way on Mondays and Fridays, two flights on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays and a single flight on Saturdays and Sundays. Connections were made at Palmerston North to Eagle Air flights to Auckland and Hamilton.

Air Nelson's Piper Chieftain ZK-NSP at Hokitika on 26 November 1989

Also on the 1st of August 1998 Motueka Air merged with Air Nelson and these flights appeared in the Air Nelson timetable. At this point three Aztec flights were operated between Motueka and Wellington each weekday with one flight being operated on both Saturdays and Sundays as well as a Motueka-Nelson service. Also appearing on the Air Nelson timetable was the Monday to Saturday newspaper service to Takaka. This was flown by Cessna 172 ZK-EOX and operated either from Nelson or Motueka depending on what traffic was offering.

The Takaka plane... Cessna 172 ZK-EOX at Nelson on 21 June 1991

Air Nelson timetable effective 1 August 1988... It shows the planned services from Wellington and Nelson to Westport and Greymouth as well as a Palmerston North-Wellington service all of which were to commence on 1 November 1988 

With the rise and fall of Air Albatross Air New Zealand recognised the need to change its provincial services. With the rise of another regional competitor in an aligned Air Nelson/Eagle Air operation Air New Zealand acted and on the 16th of September it was announced that Air New Zealand had bought Eagle Air and a half share in Air Nelson. It was also announced that it was relinquishing flights to Hokitika, Westport and some of its Nelson-Christchurch and Nelson-Wellington flights in favour of Air Nelson. In announcing the changes Air New Zealand’s chief executive Mr Jim Scott said, "It no longer makes business sense to operate Fokker Friendships when smaller aircraft operating higher frequencies better suit the market. Our provincial services have always been an important part of our operations, but we must adapt to survive in changing times. What has been the best practice in the past does not necessarily provide the best solution for the future."

So began Air Nelson’s part in revolutionising provincial air services in New Zealand. 

Farewelling the Friendship - A Time of Meteoric Growth

In the just over two years from the 31st of October 1988. to the end of 1990 Air New Zealand retired its Fokker Friendship fleet and this led Air Nelson experiencing meteoric growth.

With the September 1988 announcement made that Air Nelson would take over Air New Zealand's Friendship services to Hokitika and Westport, Air Nelson announced they would acquire a 19-seat Fairchild Metroliner III and the lease of Pacifica Air's Swearingen Metroliner II. 

An extending network, Air Nelson's timetable effective 31 October 1988 with flights to Timaru, Hokitika and Westport

Meanwhile, Air New Zealand’s move to relinquish some of its provincial services in favour of Air Nelson and Eagle Air was initially met with was met with shock and initially some angst. The affected communities soon saw, however, that there was the potential to get a better service. In Hokitika and Westport's case Air New Zealand operated two Friendship services through both the West Coast towns with the two flights departing within 75 minutes of each other meaning it was impossible for travellers to do a day's business on the Coast or in Wellington or Christchurch. 

It was announced Air Nelson's new Hokitika service would operate thrice daily Christchurch to Hokitika flights on weekdays with one Saturday and two Sunday flights. Westport was to receive an early morning positioning flight from Nelson and then three flights to Wellington, one via Nelson, and two flights into Westport on weekdays. On the weekends there were to be one flight each day to Wellington with a Sunday flight to and from Nelson with onward connections. Air Nelson also announced that Air Nelson would operate flights from Nelson to both Christchurch and Wellington.

Speaking to Hokitika and Greymouth local body leaders Air New Zealand’s southern regional manager, Mr Paul Bowe said, “With three flights a day in future there will be an extra 15 seats in and out of Hokitika each day. It really is a positive move and not one of sadness. You are, in fact, getting more service and more seat availability. We see this not as a pulling out of the service, but a changing of the service to give more frequency with better connections.”

In late September 1988 a further announcement was made that Timaru would lose its Air New Zealand Friendship weekday midday Wellington flight in favour of an Air Nelson Metroliner return flight operated from Christchurch.

While all these announcements were occurring Air Nelson itself moved rapidly to ensure the new aircraft would be ready as well as the additional pilots, engineering and administrative staff needed to take over the new services on the 31st of October 1988. 

The future shape of Air Nelson... 

In the event the lead in time proved to be too short. The Pacifica Air Metroliner was found to be unsuitable and delays were experienced in readying the Metroliner III for service in New Zealand. 

Instead of a Metroliner flying Air Nelson's first Hokitika and Timaru services on the 31st of October 1988 it was Associated Air’s Cessna 402 ZK-DSB. An Air Nelson Piper Chieftain flew the first Westport services. During November 1988 Hokitika saw a variety of aircraft types operating its Air Nelson services; Cessna 310, 402 and 421 Golden Eagle, Fokker Friendship, GAF Nomad Piper Navajo and Chieftain aircraft were all used to maintain the service. In Timaru a Canterbury Aero Club Piper Archer was also used on one occasion! Among the many aircraft that serviced the West Coast and Timaru during this time was Piper Navajo ZK-JGA that had been previously purchased by Air Nelson but was on lease to Coast Air. 

Air Nelson’s first $3 million Fairchild Metroliner III, ZK-NSW, was first seen at Hokitika on the 20th of November when it did a route proving flights to Christchurch, Hokitika and Timaru. The first Metroliner services were operated the following day. Air Nelson managing director, Mr Robert Inglis, who accompanied the first flight across the Alps, said the delay in commissioning the plane was caused by the extra certification required by the Ministry of Transport. "The time scale was put in place because of other pressures on Air New Zealand. They asked us to try and meet that time and we have done the very best that we could and remain grateful that the West Coast people have been patient and understanding of our situation." The arrival of the Metroliner was greeted with much excitement in Hokitika and  over the summer most flights were carrying 16-17 passengers. 

Air Nelson's first Fairchild Metroliner ZK-NSW at Timaru on 22 November 1990

Meanwhile, the Westport service was not gaining the level of support received in Hokitika. While awaiting the arrival of a second Metroliner Piper Chieftains was flying a late morning flight to Westport with an Air New Zealand Friendship operating in the late afternoon/ evening.

On the 1st of April 1989 Air Nelson brought their second Metroliner, ZK-NSV, into service. At this time Air Nelson introduced two weekday Metroliner services from Westport to Wellington, one operating via Nelson and the other direct. On Saturdays a Piper Navajo or Chieftain operated a single service into Westport from Nelson while on Sunday a Metroliner service was operated direct from Wellington. Air Nelson also introduced a Sunday afternoon Christchurch-Timaru return service. 

The second Fairchild Metroliner III, ZK-NSV at Hokitika on 31 May 1989

The 1st of April also the introduction of a Piper Chieftain service between Blenheim and Wellington. Four weekday flights were operated to Wellington with three return flights along with one Sunday service. A weekday Chieftain service was also inaugurated between Wellington and Palmerston North. Sometime about this time Air Nelson acquired a lease of Piper Chieftain ZK-FQW that had flown for Pacifica Air.

Further expansion began on the 3rd of July 1989 when Air Nelson extended its regional network south from Christchurch to Oamaru using a 10-seat Piper PA31 Chieftain. In announcing the new service Air Nelson’s managing director Robert Inglis said “the new schedule is designed to complement the Air New Zealand service.” At this time Oamaru was serviced by a daily morning Oamaru-Timaru-Wellington service with a return flight in the evening. The Air Nelson service offered two return services on weekdays with departures from Christchurch for Oamaru at 8.40am and 3.10pm and return flights from Oamaru departing at 9.45am and 4.15pm. 

An expanding network - The Press, 8 July 1989

By mid-July 1989 the Westport service was still not performing well and Air Nelson trimmed the Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday morning flights from the schedule. By the end of the year all the morning services to Westport were cut and it was served by one daily flight to Wellington.

The 1st of November 1989 saw further changes. Timaru was included as a stop on the morning southbound flight to Oamaru and in the afternoon the northbound flight from Oamaru. This enabled business travellers to spend a whole day in Timaru. On the West Coast the company started overnighting a Metroliner at Hokitika to allow an early morning service from Hokitika with an evening return. By December 1989 the number of passengers flying from Christchurch to Hokitika had almost doubled since Air Nelson took over the route from Air New Zealand on the previous year.

A third Metroliner, ZK-NSX, was added to the fleet in February 1990 coinciding with the announcement that Air Nelson would take over Air New Zealand’s services to Whanganui on the 9th of April 1990. The new Air Nelson services meant that passengers to and from Auckland would fly direct. Initially two Auckland weekday flights were scheduled each day with three flights to Wellington.

At the same time it was also announced that Air Nelson would replace Air New Zealand services on the Nelson-Auckland route from the 9th of April 1991. Air New Zealand's service was one direct flight to Auckland in the morning and a return flight via Palmerston North in the evening. The Air Nelson service was to see early morning and early evening return services to suit business travellers. With all this expansion more Metroliners were needed and ZK-NSU and ZK-NSY were added to the fleet in April 1990 with ZK-NSZ following in May 1990. These three aircraft had been operated for Trans World Express in the United States by Pocono Airlines. Both NSZ and NSU operated for a time in Trans World Express colours.

Displaying Trans World Express colours, Fairchild Metroliner ZK-NSU, with Air Nelson titles, at Hokitika on 14 May 1990.

Further expansion was announced in March 1990, even before the new Nelson-Auckland and Wanganui services had begun. Air New Zealand announced that it would withdraw from Oamaru and Timaru with Air Nelson taking over from the 23rd of April 1990. Oamaru was the big loser going from a pressurised 48-seat Friendship to an unpressurised 9 seat Piper Chieftain. The Oamaru schedule saw three weekday flights connecting to either Air New Zealand services at Christchurch or Air Nelson services to Wellington at Timaru.  Timaru was to receive two direct weekday flights from Timaru to Wellington with one flight on Saturdays and Sunday. The existing Christchurch service was retained and an additional Chieftain service was provided from Christchurch to Timaru for business people in the morning. 

On the Oamaru service, Air Nelson's Piper PA31 Navajo ZK-JGA at Oamaru on 17 October 1990

Expansion of services continued with Blenheim receiving Metroliner services between Wellington and Blenheim and a new weekday Blenheim-Christchurch service from the 23rd of July 1990.

The West Coast received additional flights from the 6th of August 1990 with a fourth weekday service between Christchurch and Hokitika and the introduction of a six day a week Hokitika-Westport service connecting Westport to Christchurch via Hokitika and Hokitika to Wellington via Westport. Wanganui also received a third flight to Auckland and while the Wellington service was reduced to two flights. 

The Air Nelson around the rocks service saw two Metroliners at the same time... The flight would arrive from Westport and tranship to the other Metro for Christchurch. The Metroliner from Westport would carry on to Christchurch 95 minutes after arriving. It was a schedule doomed to fail. Metroliners ZK-NSU and NSY at Hokitika on 8 August 1990
West Coast Times, 3 September 1990

However, the big news in August 1990 was Air New Zealand's decision to withdraw its entire Fokker Friendship fleet. Air Nelson had already evaluated suitable replacement aircraft including the Saab 340 (34 seats), the Embraer Brasilia and the British Aerospace Jetstream 41 but it was the 34-seat Saab 340 which was the airline’s choice. Air Nelson announced it was leasing, and perhaps later purchasing, four 34-seat Saab 340 aircraft and expanding its Metroliner fleet from six to nine. Commenting on the expansion Robert Inglis said travel habits had changed over the years and "communities are requesting frequency service, clearly difficult to achieve with Friendships. There had been good acceptance of Air Nelson's high-frequency Metroliner schedule, and the company had been contemplating adding extra aircraft to its fleet for some time. So being a growing company and fast on our feet, we will be very quickly in the marketplace to fill any void left by Air New Zealand. We're looking at the routes that they're pulling off and saying to ourselves, 'would some of these suit our operation?' Yes, we'll certainly take up the challenge and believe that with a great number of Air New Zealand's routes we'll be able to gear our operations to give some of the services required." 

While Air Nelson was busy expanding Air Nelson was continuing to serve Motueka with Piper Aztecs and Piper Navajos.
Nelson Evening Mail, September 1990
All painted up in Air Nelson colours, Piper PA23 Aztec ZK-DIO at Foxpine on 11 May 1990...
...and Piper PA23 Aztec ZK-PIX at Motueka on 15 August 1990

Saabs were earmarked for the Nelson-Wellington, New Plymouth-Auckland, New Plymouth-Wellington and Rotorua-Wellington routes while Metroliners would be used on the Tauranga-Wellington and Gisborne-Wellington routes and Blenheim-Wellington receiving both Saab and Metroliner flights.

Initial outrage and disappointment was expressed by local leaders in all these regions. An example was Nelson’s mayor, Mr Peter Malone, who wasn’t happy with the decision to retire the Friendships saying Nelson city has been disadvantaged yet again as a provincial centre by the "new commercial environment created by Rogernomics which puts dollars before people and services" These fears were short-lived as the airline set about establishing the new routes and in the years following expanding the provincial air services.

Within days Air Nelson confirmed that it had leased Saab 340As from Crossair in Switzerland and use them for a few months before deciding whether it would go ahead with its preferred option to buy new Saab 340B aircraft. It was reported that if Air Nelson went ahead and bought four Saabs, the whole expansion programme, including Metroliners, would amount to $80 million.

Air Nelson replaced Air New Zealand’s Friendship service to Tauranga on the 17th of September 1990. Replacing the two Friendship flights to Wellington, one direct and one via Rotorua, were three weekday Metroliner flights operated in the morning, mid-day and evening along with two flights a day on weekends. An aircraft and six pilots were based at Tauranga. The Bay of Plenty Times reported that “the first flight to Wellington touched down at 8.30am, about 20 minutes faster than the former Friendship service which ended yesterday. Air Nelson commercial manager Noel Gillespie said it was a “really good start, with almost full bookings on all flights today.””

On the same day Air Nelson replaced the Air New Zealand’s Wellington-Gisborne service. By this stage Gisborne had one direct Friendship flight to Wellington with two Eagle Air Bandeirante flights connecting to Air New Zealand at Napier. Air Nelson's new service saw three weekday Metroliner flights operated in the morning, mid-day and evening and two flights a day on weekends.

At this time more Metroliners were arriving in the country. ZK-NSQ and ZK-NSS came from British operator Air Metro and they were registered with Air Nelson in September 1990 along with another Metroliner, ZK-NST. Two brand new Metroliners, ZK-NSI and ZK-NSJ were registered to Air Nelson in November and December 1990 respectively.

Fairchild Metroliner III ZK-NSS in Air Metro colours at Nelson on 9 September 1990

Fairchild Metroliner III ZK-NSQ in Air Metro colours taxis in at Hokitika on 13 November 1990

The first of Air Nelson’s Saab SF340As, ZK-FXB, arrived into Nelson from Crossair on the 27th of September 1990. In the weeks following two more Saabs arrived from Switzerland, ZK-FXA and ZK-FXD, and one arrived from Australia, ZK-FXC

On delivery from Crossair, the first Saab 340A, HB-AHQ, at Nelson on 28 September 1990. It became ZK-FXB.
The Australian Saab 340, VH-OLH at Nelson on 24 October 1990. It became ZK-FXC.
Further expansion was announced in October with Air Nelson announcing it would operate a Wellington-Taupo service from the 5th of November 1990. This service also included a Taupo-Tauranga extension Taupo giving connections to and from Auckland as well as allowing extra capacity between Tauranga and Wellington via Taupo.

Air Nelson replaced Air New Zealand’s Rotorua-Wellington service on the 5th of November 1990. Saabs were initially designated for this route but a dispute over landing charges, the fact that Mount Cook and Ansett also operated on the route and the success of the Tauranga service saw the Saab redeployed to Tauranga while Rotorua received a Metroliner service. Air New Zealand’s two weekday Friendships flights a day were replaced with three Metroliner flights. As it happened the initial services were flown by chartered Friendships as Air Nelson struggled to get Metroliners on line.

Air Nelson officially took over Air New Zealand’s Nelson and Blenheim services on the 5th of November 1990, though delays in the delivery of the Saabs lead to Air Nelson chartering two Friendships from Air New Zealand to fly their routes for another week and the first Air Nelson Saab flights were flown from Nelson to Wellington and Wellington to Blenheim on the 12th of November 1990.

NZ Herald, 15 November 1990

Tauranga received a Saab service from the 19th of November 1990 and one of these flights also operated through Taupo.

The final stage of the Air Nelson’s Friendship retirement expansion was the addition of New Plymouth to its network. New Plymouth-Wellington flights began on the 26th of November with the New Plymouth-Auckland services commencing on the 11th of December 1990. Two Saabs were based at New Plymouth with Air Nelson's new service offering four weekday flights to Wellington, replacing Air New Zealand’s three Friendship flights, and five weekday flight to Auckland, replacing Air New Zealand’s four Friendship flights.

All painted up in Air Nelson colours... Saab 340 ZK-FXB at Nelson on 14 November 1990
A much extended network... Air Nelson timetable effective 5 November 1990

So ended two years of meteoric growth in the history of Air Nelson. It was a growth that revolutionised provincial air services and that was to set the foundation for further growth in the years following.

 Santa gives Air Nelson a hand after a busy Christmas night - ZK-NSI... the early morning flight out of Hokitika on Christmas Day after 1990 after two meteoric years of growth for Air Nelson. Robert and Nicki must have thought all their Christmases had come at once. 


  1. Very good researched article Steve thanks for all your dedicated effort!!!

  2. And now it appears that Air Nelson will be gone by years end. All the Q300 to be moved across to Airnz.