11 February 2018

Air Albatross - The Cook Strait Commuter

On the 27th of April 1981 the Wellington Aero Club commenced a Wellington-Blenheim-Nelson service for carriage of The Dominion newspaper using a Cessna 320. By mid-July the Club realised that the courier service, which operated on temporary licences, was becoming problematic and it was decided to discontinue the service. It was this decision that led to the establishment Air Albatross and Murray Turley applying for an air transport licence to conduct scheduled services from Wellington to Blenheim and Wellington to Nelson in July 1981.

Murray Turley’s flying career began in 1955 when he learned to fly with the Nelson Aero Club in Tiger Moths and Piper Cubs. His early two hundred hours flying time in the Nelson and Cook Strait area established a knowledge and affection for this area. In 1959 he went to Christchurch to join air traffic control before going to NAC as a pilot in 1960. After four years, he left the corporation. After a break from aviation he eventually returned to the air Wellington Aero Club and Capital Air Services.

Murray Turley, 28 January 1984

His application for an air transport licence envisaged a minimum frequency of 3 return flights per week on both the routes from Wellington to Blenheim and Nelson along with a non-scheduled service between Blenheim and Nelson and air charter or air taxi services from Wellington to any licensed airfield in New Zealand. Murray Turley’s intention was to operate as a sole trader under the name of Air Albatross, a name chosen for his unsuccessful tender to operate the Chatham Island service as a replacement for the Safe Air Bristol Freighter service.

In terms of aircraft the application looked to initially use a five seat Piper PA23 Aztec. As traffic built up it was proposed to replace the Aztec with a 10-seat Aero Commander 680FL or a 9-seat Cessna 402. Murray Turley also sought the right to negotiate increased or decreased freight rates on a contractual basis with long-term customers such as The Dominion. The application proposed a Monday Saturday timetable of flights departing Wellington at 6.00 am arriving at Blenheim at 6.25am and Nelson at 7.05am. The aircraft would then depart from Nelson at 7.25am to arrive into Wellington at 8.00am. The early flight times were to enable the early morning delivery of newspapers, mail and courier freight to Blenheim and Nelson.

As the application was being considered Air New Zealand announced its intention to cut its early-morning return flights between Wellington and Blenheim in October of that year. James Air, keen to replace Air New Zealand’s early morning service to Blenheim, objected to Turley’s proposed service, even though they had withdrawn from the very same service in April that year.

On the 2nd of September 1981 the Air Services Licensing Authority granted M C Turley a licence to operate scheduled services on the Wellington-Blenheim and Wellington-Nelson routes with a minimum of 5 return flights on each route each week, a non-scheduled service on the route Blenheim-Nelson route and air charter and air taxi services from Wellington to any licensed airfield or authorised landing place in New Zealand using a 9-seat Cessna 402. He was also granted the right to apply a discount up to but not exceeding 50% of the adult fare for stand-by passengers and to grant discounts of up to 50% on freight rates where contracts were negotiated for selected cargoes depending on volume, type and density.

Services began on or about the 3rd of September 1981 using Piper PA23-250 Aztec C ZK-DUB which had been registered to Murray Turley on the 31st of August 1981. Fellow pilot Neil Bartlett was also instrumental in the establishment of the fledgling airline. Advertisements in the Evening Post and Dominion newspapers stated that Air Albatross was operating Cook Strait services for newspapers, freight and urgent freight and that passenger services would start on the 2nd of November 1981. Nonetheless passengers were flown with 60 people using Air Albatross in September and 67 in October 1981. ZK-DUB remained registered to Murray Turley until October 1982.

Air Albatross' first aircraft, Piper Aztec ZK-DUB at Wellington on 23 October 1981
Evening Post, 28 September 1981

In preparation for more formal passenger services Cessna 402A ZK-DHW was purchased from Westland Flying Services and it was registered to Murray Turley on the 28th of September 1981 and subsequently painted in Air Albatross colours. Timetabled operations began on the 9th of November 1981, with three weekday flights a day being operated between Wellington and Blenheim, and two between Wellington and Nelson, the morning flight being via Blenheim. 

Back in Hokitika... Air Albatross had bought Cessna 402 ZK-DHW from Hokitika-based Westland Flying Services. It was back in Hokitika on an Air Albatross charter in August 1982

Timetable Number 1, Effective November 1981

On the 8th of December 1981 Air Albatross was granted approval to grant discounts up to 50 percent on fares for particular groups of people and/or for travel at specified times or on specified flights. Using this concession, Murray Turley nominated the entire schedule for the month of January, and all flights during that time attracted what he termed “holiday incentive fares.” This meant the Nelson-Wellington air fare was $35 down from its normal fare of $46 and Air New Zealand’s $52 fare and the Blenheim-Wellington fare was reduced from $40 to $30 compared to Air New Zealand’s $45 fare.

This precipitated a growth in passenger traffic adding to the growing amount of freight being carried. In February 1982 Murray Turley sought permission to add a second Cessna 402 to the fleet. In his letter to the Air Service Licensing Authority he stated that, since 1 September 1981 we have had to offload freight on our early morning mail and newspaper flights to Blenheim and Nelson on seventy-one flights out of 123 flights operated, with an average offload of 200 kg and a peak offload of about 500 kg plus offloading freight on an additional 17 flights since mid-November 1981. These figures are current to 31 January 1982... Also the strong pressure for a back-up aircraft would be understood by the Authority, and reinforces the need for an additional aircraft on the licence to cover maintenance and weather disruptions… The need for the additional capacity is immediate and pressing, hence the attached application for a temporary air service licence for one extra Cessna 402 namely ZK-DSG to provide a short term partial solution to our capacity problems.

A temporary licence was subsequently granted allowing the use of ZK-DSG. From the 15th of February 1982 Air Albatross introduced an additional weekday late afternoon/ evening flight between Wellington and Blenheim. Air Albatross was rapidly changing Cook Strait travel. Murray Turley was reported as saying the competition between his company, James Air and Air New Zealand was a unique situation. “It’s the first time two private schedule operators have been placed in a competitive environment alongside Air New Zealand.” Air New Zealand’s Nelson manager, Mr Bob Bryan, admitted “the two private operators have been taking a few passengers away from us. Albatross had their cheap fares in January which proved popular but it is difficult to gauge if they have attracted a significant amount of passengers away from us as we were down on traffic last year which reflected a nationwide trend. We are losing some customers to private operators but not in droves.  Most people preferred flying on Friendships than on smaller aircraft. Tourists and other people often get a fright when they see Albatross’s Cessna 402. They like the bigger plane.”

Air Albatross' "temporary" Cessna 402, ZK-DSG at Wellington on 21 September 1982 

In April 1982 Air Albatross introduced a 10-trip concession ticket at a 10 percent discount, the first of its kind in New Zealand. A return fare on the concession ticket from Nelson to Wellington cost $83 compared to the $122 charged by Air New Zealand. Then, in May 1992, Air Albatross applied to amend its licence by adding a 19-seat Swearingen Metroliner to its fleet. Air Albatross was certainly making its presence felt and it was this point that marked the beginning of a battle with Air New Zealand and the Air Services Licencing Authority.

Air Albatross’ first eight months of operation had seen a meteoric rise in traffic. In September 1981, the first month of operations, 17,641kg of freight was carried. By 1982 this had grown to 28,940kg. Passenger growth was even more dramatic. 60 passengers were flown in September 1981, 834 were flown in the discounted month of January 1982 and 950 passengers were flown in April 1982. In support of his application Murray Turley reported that since February 1982, freight was offloaded on 33 occasions and severely restricted on a further 85 occasions, to give a total of 118 flights. Payload was severely restricted on 14% of the total flights completed in the period February to April 1982 inclusive, and on over 50% of the Nelson flights. He also stated that a factor having a strong influence on passenger growth rate was the passenger fare increase granted to Air New Zealand. This had resulted in a significant fare differential of up to $29.00 for a return fare between Wellington and Nelson. Air New Zealand’s fare increase had an immediate and sustained increase in passenger traffic on Air Albatross’ services but this increase was constrained by the aircraft used and timetable. “The travelling public has unquestionably demonstrated a preference for the lower fares, not even being deterred by the disparity in size and comfort of the equipment offered viz Cessna 402 vv Fokker F27. To illustrate this point, a further 112 flights during the period February to April 1982 inclusive carried full passenger loads with unsatisfied waitlisted passengers.” His application also detailed a growing air charter market for the fledgling airline.

While awaiting a decision on the addition of a Metroliner to the fleet Turley had to keep operating the second Cessna 402 under temporary licences. In August 1982 he applied for an amendment for a fresh temporary licence to cope with an expanding schedule as well as allowing him to operate additional flights as demand required.

The hoped for Swearingen Merlin IV 'Metroliner' VH-CFO at Wellington on 21 September 1982. There is a small "Fly Albatross" sticker below the cheatlines under the cockpit. Air Albatross wasn't going to fly this aircraft in 1982, however, in 1984 it was added to the fleet as ZK-SWB  

The Air Services Licensing Authority, however, were becoming unsettled about the manner in which Air Albatross was discounting its air fares and the Authority called Murray Turley to report to a public inquiry to decide whether the Authority should amend or revoke or substitute the special condition granted in December 1981 whereby Air Albatross was authorised to apply discounts up to, but not exceeding 50% on fares on scheduled and non-scheduled services in respect of particular groups of people and/or for travel at specified times or on specified flights subject to such restrictions as may be specified by the licence holder.

The hearing gave a detailed account of the discounting Air Albatross had applied. In January 1982 the airline discounted ordinary fares for persons travelling Wellington-Blenheim and Wellington-Nelson by 25%, the main effect being on Air New Zealand and James Air. Other discounts offered included the sale of 10 trip concession tickets with a 10% discount, a discount of 10% on all return fares and a 20% discount on the 6.30am flights from Wellington to Blenheim or Nelson.

The Licensing Authority had to consider whether the discounts granted were of a kind authorised by the special condition granted in December 1981, namely, whether the concessions have been “in respect of particular groups of people and/or for travel at specified times or on specified flights” within the meaning of those words in the context of the whole condition. The Authority was of the opinion that the condition extended no further than to give Mr Turley the right to grant discounts only in respect of particular groups of people and/or only in respect of travel at particular or specified times or on particular or specified flights. Its view of “specified” flights were that they must be expressly named by reference to their time of operation or by other such details. Similarly for travel to be at specified times, the times must be named, that is, as to the days of the week or the times of the day. In the same way it said unless a ‘particular group’ exists a discount cannot be offered. “All persons now travelling on Mr Turley’s flights have the right to purchase ten trip tickets or discounted return tickets. The availability or use of such discounts cannot in result in persons purchasing the discounted tickets becoming a special group having something predicated to them which is not predicated to others.” The Authority said the only discount being correctly applied is the 20% discount allowed to passengers travelling on the early morning newspaper freight flights leaving Wellington at 6.30 a.m. Evidence presented showed that the additional Cessna 402 operated on temporary licences since February 1982 was used not only to cope with the freight build up but also to exploit the potential passenger traffic. The Authority was “satisfied that this exploitation has been an active campaign on the part of Mr Turley assisted in no small measure by offering improper discounts.”

Hopeful - A photo of a Metroliner appearing on the Air Albatross timetable effective 5 September 1982

In coming to its decision the Authority stated, “It is our view that the valuable role of commuter airlines is in supplying complementary services. This should be done (and is now being done on a number of routes throughout the country) only to the extent of providing adequate capacity and adequate frequency of operation to provincial towns and centres which cannot sustain regular Friendship operations. It was because of the need to provide a service not available from other operators (i.e. a complementary service) that Mr Turley was licensed. By using the temporary licence which he was granted to assist with overloads on that complementary service and by using improper discounts he has considerably expanded that service and is now operating in direct competition with Air New Zealand in particular and to a lesser extent with James Aviation… It is not possible for commuter operators to offer the complete type of service available from Air New Zealand. On most such operations the pilot carries the bags, loads and unloads the aircraft, closes and opens the doors and flies the machine. While the services offered by commuter operators may well suit a section of the travelling public who do not require the additional facilities provided by Air New Zealand the loss of a service such as Air New Zealand provides could result in less advantaged travellers being left without any service or a less than adequate service to meet their special needs.”

The Authority decided that the rights held by Air New Zealand were encroached upon in a manner and to a degree which cannot be regarded as healthy competition. Air Albatross’ success had come from the improper discounts he was offering and the introduction of services not in any way connected with the early morning freight trips. The Authority revoked the December conditions and substituted these by authorising discounts up to but not exceeding 20% on fares on scheduled services departing Wellington at 6.30 a.m. for Blenheim and Nelson. Air Albatross’ application to operate a Metroliner on its services was also declined.

Air Albatross' Cessna 402B ZK-EHT at Nelson on 15 April 1984

Murray Turley was not happy with the decision and announced that he would continue to offer discounts on 10-trip and return tickets until an appeal against the ruling was heard. In November 1982 the company returned to the Air Services Licensing Authority to amend its licence to add a Metroliner and either a Cessna 402 or Cessna 441 Conquest to its fleet and to add a new Nelson to Auckland route to its services. At the hearing in mid-December 1982 Air Albatross was accused by Air New Zealand’s counsel of ignoring the Air Services Licensing Authority by its continued sale of discounted fares and for operating aircraft beyond the number of aircraft authorised by its licence. “One could excuse a minor operating error - but this applicant seems intent on continuing to completely ignore the authority,” he said. The Air Service Licensing Authority “adjourned indefinitely” the hearing of the application for a direct Nelson-Auckland service until the four other applications were heard by the appeal authority.

In June 1983, a week before Air Albatross was to present its Licencing Authority appeal Air New Zealand announced its decision to reintroduce a direct Nelson-Auckland Friendship service despite the fact that Air Albatross’ application to operate the same route had still not been heard. Murray Turley was quoted as saying that “when Air New. Zealand decided earlier this year to withdraw its Napier-Christchurch service, Mount Cook Airlines and Central Air immediately applied to take over the route. As a result Air New Zealand then reconsidered its decision. The resumed Nelson-Auckland flight showed Air New Zealand was only prepared to give the public what it had to. The announcement would have no effect on Albatross’s plans. Air New Zealand will have competition.”

Air Albatross’ appeal was eventually heard on the 14th of June 1983. The airline argued that the Licencing Authority had erred greatly in its assessment of the public interest in this case and submitted that both consumers and operators had to be considered and that healthy competition was desirable. Air New Zealand had no right to special treatment and the alleged illegal operation involving discounts and temporary licences for the use of the second Cessna 402 were not relevant. The Appeal Authority agreed with the Licensing Authority that some of the discounts offered were illegal and played a large part in the growth of passenger numbers. With the decisions of the Licencing Authority upheld Air Albatross lost its rights to offer discounts on most of its Cook Strait flights. The application to operate a Metroliner was also declined. Marlborough’s MP Mr D. Kidd told the Evening Post that while the decisions were correct in law, the result showed that qualitative rather than quantitative licensing is needed, and that judgement on the quality of an air service would be better for provincial services around the country. Mr Kidd was Chairman of a Parliamentary Select Committee which was at this time studying the Air Services Licensing Amendment Bill.

With Air Albatross’ appeal being unsuccessful the airline returned to the Air Service Licensing Authority in July 1983 once again seeking a temporary licence to operate its second and a possible third Cessna 402. By this stage the Authority seemed to be getting frustrated with Murray Turley. The finding recorded, “While accepting that he (Murray Turley) has a licence to operate “only one aircraft” he agrees that “since February 1982 I have been using two Cessna 402 aircraft in the operation of air services for freight and mail and passengers”. From early February 1982 Mr Turley applied for a series of temporary licences for additional Cessna 402. The grounds for these applications are covered in Decision No. 65/1982 and in Appeal No. 88. Not all periods since February 1982 have been covered by temporary licences authorising Mr Turley to operate additional Cessna 402 aircraft. The last temporary licence issued expired on 1 October 1982. It is clear that for certain periods after 5 February 1982 and continuously since 1 October 1982 Mr Turley has operated timetabled services during both mornings and afternoons which have resulted in two aircraft being used when his licence has permitted the operation of one aircraft only. We are not in doubt that the build-up in traffic he speaks of in the supporting statement has resulted from improper discounts (vide Appeal No. 88) and from his use of a second aircraft for which he has held no licence. Evidence obtained by illegal operations has always been rejected by the Air Services Licensing Authority. When the evidence obtained in this way is excluded we can find no grounds that would justify granting Mr Turley the right to operate two additional C402 aircraft without restriction. The fact that he has accepted forward bookings is not a matter to which we can give weight. There is no evidence that Air New Zealand and James Air are unable to cope with the available traffic which cannot be accommodated and carried legally by Mr Turley. Accordingly we are not satisfied that it is established by any admissible evidence that the proposed service is necessary or desirable in the public interest or that the needs of the districts to be served require the addition of two further aircraft to his existing rights. The Licensing Authority has in granting earlier temporary licences accepted that there can be a need to operate one Cessna 402 aircraft from Wellington to Blenheim and a second from Wellington to Nelson on the early morning newspaper/ freight/ passenger services. This was the purpose for which licence No. 1555 was granted. The Authority is of the opinion that this need should be met and that a temporary licence should be issued for one C402 aircraft restricted to operating on such early morning services and the return journeys thereof. The application is granted to that extent only.” This, another temporary licence, was again only valid for one month. The following month Air Albatross had to apply all over again. 

With the new the transport delicensing legislation passed, in mid-November 1983 Air Albatross announced it would introduce a 19-seater Metroliner to its fleet the following month and that it would reduce its fares on its Cook Strait flights. The New Zealand Herald reported that for Murray Turley “the third reading of the Air Services Licensing Bill meant exhilaration and intense excitement. It meant an end to his battling with the Air Services Licensing Authority to keep his fledgling, Air Albatross, in the air. An end to the ploys and counter ploys, the moves and countermoves, the horridly expensive legal actions, and the manoeuvrings stopping just short of skulduggery which had been his burden for two years.”

The company’s first Swearingen Metroliner, ZK-SWA, was a 1978 model purchased for “around the $1 million mark” from Skywest Airlines, of Perth. It arrived in Wellington in late November 1983 in preparation for the amendment to the Air Services Licensing Act came into force the following day. Speaking at the time of its arrival Air Albatross’ deputy-operations manager, Mr Gary Moore, said, “Nelson is served with six Cessna 402 flights daily at present. When the Metroliner was introduced, probably in the week beginning December 12, it will provide five flights a day and there will be one Cessna 402 flight. This will increase passenger capacity from 45 to 90. The Metro class fare proposed is $50 with a “leisure class” fare of $40 on the Cessna 402 flight. Mr Moore said all air operators have to reapply for a licence under the amended legislation. Provided the paperwork was satisfactory the licence was expected to be granted automatically. Mr Moore said that although the frequency of flights during the week will not be increased initially, additional flights will be provided on each day at weekends. The company is also considering extending its services by introducing a Nelson-Auckland link using a second Metroliner.”

Air Albatross' first Swearingen Metroliner II, ZK-SWA, at Nelson on 15 April 1984

Air Albatross began Metroliner operations on the 15th of December 1983 and by Christmas 1983 the Metroliner was making four daily flights into Nelson and three into Blenheim with its speed and rate of climb impressing locals in both centres. Managing director Mr Murray Turley said air travellers had responded well to discounted, off-peak fares. Traffic was heavy up to Christmas but patronage since then had increased even further. “It has been very noticeable that people are more price conscious and are shopping around to get the best deal. This is partly because they didn’t have that choice before. It has meant that loadings have been a bit unbalanced with heavier off-peak flights, but it’s all good business and we’re very pleased. Because of the competitive fares many more families have been travelling by air these holidays than I’ve seen for possibly five years.”

An interesting Metroliner training flight was made to the 1600m Lake Station airstrip near St Arnaud in late December 1983 in preparation for the opening the new Alpine Lodge Rotoiti. The lodge was officially opened on the 28th of January 1984 and invited guests, travel agents and media were flown to St Arnaud from Auckland and Wellington in Air Albatross Metroliner ZK-SWA and one of the company's Cessna 402s. The Lake Station airstrip was used during the Second World War as a training strip and was reactivated by Air Albatross in collaboration with the station's owner, Mr Lex McConachie. Air Albatross's managing director, Mr Murray Turley, flew in a fully-laden Metroliner for the first time, and said afterwards that everything went without a hitch. He still had plenty of runway left when the aircraft stopped. The strip could easily handle a Friendship or Hawker Siddeley aircraft, he said.  The invited guests were taken on a 15 minute scenic flight over the Nelson Lakes National Park in the Metroliner before being flown home. Air Albatross plans to promote the area and arrange direct flights for hunting, fishing, skiing, tramping and river rafting came to nothing. It also looked to develop at airfield at Collingwood and in July 1984 Air Albatross announced it was is interested in developing a new airfield at Motueka.

By the end of January 1984 Air Albatross was carrying more than 3000 passengers per month with a fleet of three aircraft, the Metroliner and two Cessna 402s using 12 full-time pilots and a total staff of 25 based in Wellington, Nelson and Blenheim.

In February 1984 Air Albatross announced its plans to acquire a second Metroliner and start a Nelson-Auckland service. Managing director Mr Murray Turley told the Nelson Evening Mail, “The Nelson to Auckland service would operate seven days a week and include an extra leg to Blenheim. The service is aimed specifically at the business market and would complement, rather than compete with, the Air New Zealand Friendship mid-morning service. The company has taken on three additional co-pilots and a captain for the Auckland service.” At this stage Murray Turley owned 80 per cent of Air Albatross with Ted Sweetman of Variety Travel owing the remaining 20 per cent.

The new Metroliner service proved very popular. Murray Turley was reported as saying rewards come from the satisfied customers who find bumping their own baggage to the· aircraft and talking to pilots, not manicured hostesses working for the monolithic state enterprise, to their liking. Many people say they fly Air Albatross simply because it isn’t Air New Zealand. Turley thinks that is all to do with time. It saves passengers, up to 20 minutes a flight if they can put their own luggage on board, and carry it from the tarmac. He doesn’t think it would be wise to implement a full baggage handling facility. Neither does he think it wise for Air Albatross to leap into further expansion. Air Albatross’s financial success to date is attributable to that geographical barrier, Cook Strait. Cook Strait effectively forces people to fly between the two islands. Obviously we are responsive to the principle of expansion and growth, but it has to be soundly based. He could take risks and gamble when only three livelihoods were at stake. Now he realises the responsibility that Air Albatross owes its 30 dedicated employees. His accountant still shakes his head in wonder at the risks that have got Air Albatross so far already - “who else would be mad enough to start an airline in the middle of an economic depression, and make it work?”

A second Metroliner in the form of Swearingen Merlin IV ZK-SWB arrived from Australia in February 1984. This aircraft had previously been in Wellington in 1982 while Air Albatross awaited, unsuccessfully, a licensing decision.

The Nelson-Auckland air service started on the 5th of March 1984. The 78 minute inaugural flight, which carried 11 passengers, was flown under the command of Murray Turley. The airline service to Auckland operated twice a day during the week with one flight a day on Saturdays and Sundays. A connection was also made to and from Blenheim.  

The second 'Metroliner', Swearingen Merlin IV ZK-SWB at Nelson on 15 April 1984
Air Albatross' Auckland timetable, effective 5 March 1984

In mid-1984 Air Albatross announced it was trying to buy a third Metroliner for its Cook Strait services. Murray Turley said the third plane was needed to replace the Cessna 402s used in conjunction with Metroliners across Cook Strait. Possible routes for the future included those between Nelson and Christchurch and Nelson-West Coast. He also indicated that the company’s loadings were averaging 56 per cent, with the Nelson-Auckland loading being higher still, well above the break-even level.

In September 1984 Nelson-based airline Avcorp Commuter which operated from Nelson to Palmerston North, Wanganui and New Plymouth was put up for sale. The business was offered to Air Albatross but with the change to the Air Licensing Act and, as Murray Turley said, “What Avcorp is having to face up to is that nobody has to buy licences any more to fly a particular route. With the much easier air licensing you aren’t forced to buy somebody’s licence. Avcorp is perhaps is having to face the reality that its licence as such has no value.” Air Albatross announced it would fly from Nelson to Palmerston North and New Plymouth from the 1st of October 1984. A daily Nelson-New Plymouth-Auckland return service was to be operated using Metroliners and a Nelson-Palmerston North service with a 9-seater Cessna was to be operated on a twice daily basis. Morning flights were to operate Monday to Saturday and the afternoon service would operate Sunday to Friday. The expansion saw the return of Cessna 402 ZK-DSG to the fleet joining Cessna 402s ZK-DHW and ZK-EHT.

Nelson Evening Mail, 29 September 1984

Back in the fleet, Cessna 402 at Palmerston North of 10 March 1985

In February 1985 Air Albatross moved their main base from Wellington to Nelson. Richard Grayson, the engineering manager for Mount Cook Airlines, was appointed as the engineering director with seven other engineering positions to be filled.

With the arrival of a third Metroliner, ZK-SWC, in February 1985 Air Albatross announced a return air service between Nelson and Christchurch from the 1st of April 1985. Morning flights were to operate Monday to Saturday and the afternoon service operating Sunday to Friday. The company also announced an additional flight between Nelson and Wellington to “plug a gap” in its timetable in the middle of the afternoon and a third flight between Nelson and Palmerston North.

A series of adverts in the Christchurch Press in March 1985

The third Metroliner, ZK-SWC at Christchurch on 14 September 1985

Air Albatross timetable, 1 April 1985

In June 1985 Air Albatross added a fourth Metroliner, ZK-SWD, to their fleet. From the 30th of September 1985 flights between Nelson and Christchurch were increased to five flights a day each weekday. At the same time Metroliners started operating the Nelson-Palmerston North service with the middle of the day flight carrying to Auckland and return. By this stage the airline had only one Cessna 402 operating in the fleet with another awaiting sale. This was based at Wellington and mainly serviced Blenheim with two flights a day to Nelson.

"Aren't you flash" were the words I heard on my scanner of the controller to the Air Albatross flight arriving at Christchurch. I jumped in the car and went out to catch my first glimpse of the Super Blue scheme. Swearingen Metroliner II ZK-SWD in the spectacular blue scheme on November 1985

NZ Herald, 26 September 1985

Air Albatross, 30 September 1985

Tragedy struck the company on the 4th of October 1985 when the Cessna 402, ZK-EHT, operating Air Albatross flight 247 VFR from Nelson to Wellington, hit high tension power lines and crashed into Tory Channel, in the Marlborough Sounds. The 402 was carrying the pilot and eight passengers. The Cook Strait ferry Aratika happened to be adjacent to the accident site and had rescue boats over the side and searching for survivors within minutes of the aircraft crashing into the channel. The master of the ferry, Captain Bill Jones, said the ship was about 400 metres away from the aircraft. “It broke up in three large pieces and lots of little ones. There was no flash… it happened so quickly. We were on the spot very quickly, but the wreckage sank. We were right on the spot in two or three minutes.” Sadly the ferry crew were only able to rescue one survivor, a 12-year-old girl who was taken on board and the transported to hospital with a broken wrist, rib injuries and mild shock. One body was recovered at the time of the crash. Divers and boats using sonar equipment located the wreck and four bodies were recovered from the salvaged Cessna 402 three days after the accident. 

The ill-fated Cessna 402 ZK-EHT at Palmerston North on 22 February 1985

The 11 kV power line from Te Weka Bay on the mainland to Te Iro Bay on Arapawa Island stretched more than 2km across the channel from three pylons at 290m on the mainland and at 223m on the island. The pylons were painted red and white, but even in clear weather were hardly visible. The cables hung at 160m above the water in cold weather and sagged to 91m in warm. In speaking to the media a distressed Murray Turley was critical of the power lines across Tory Channel and produced a letter he wrote to the former Minister of Transport, Mr Gair, in April, 1982. “I believe that unless this aerial power line is replaced with a submarine cable it will inevitably lead to tragic and unnecessary deaths of air crew and passengers,” the letter said. “I respectfully urge you I to take remedial action as quickly as possible in the I interests of saving lives,” he said. “Because of the amount of air traffic that uses this route and because also up until now the route has been a safe low-level entry and exit to the Marlborough Sounds via Tory Channel, erection of the power line is an open invitation to aerial disaster.” Mr Turley produced a reply from Mr Gair dated May 21, 1982. “These power lines constitute a hazard to air navigation and pilots should either fly at a height sufficient to keep the aircraft well clear of the obstruction or, if this is not possible because of the low cloud base, avoid using Tory Channel in such conditions,” Mr Gair said. “It is regretted that this hazard to air navigation exists,” Mr Gair said. “However, power must be reticulated and the Marlborough Electric Power Board advises that the alternative undersea cabling was fully investigated but not adopted due to the quite unacceptable level of costs associated with operating, faults, and maintenance.”

The accident report, which was issued by the chief inspector of air accidents, Mr Ron Chippindale in mid-1986, blamed the pilot for the crash by flying unnecessarily low. He also blamed Air Albatross for failing to ensure that its pilots knew of the high power cables and criticised the Marlborough Power Board for not illuminating the wires, and the Ministry of Transport Civil Aviation Division for not demanding that the cables be marked.

Within two weeks of the air accident Air Albatross announced that it was in serious financial difficulty and needed an immediate cash injection. This news resulted in a wave of public support. Despite its difficulties Air Albatross expected to honour its commitment to its passengers and maintain flight schedules “subject to any over-riding circumstances.” Within days the airline announced it needed an immediate cash injection of $1m to $1.5m. “Receivership is a very real possibility, but not a foregone conclusion,” Murray Turley was reported as saying. At this stage Mr Turley was the major shareholder in the airline, owning 57 per cent, Mr and Mrs Ted Sweetman, owning 40 per cent, and Mr David Buck, 3 per cent. A staff memo stated the tragic loss of our Cessna 402 together with eight lives on October 4 last caused an immediate but totally understandable loss of patronage of our services by the travelling public. This loss of patronage was reflected in a significant drop in revenue. We also experienced a frustratingly high defect rate in our Metroliner fleet during this period. All the defects were minor and quickly fixed. However, they did result on many occasions in delayed or cancelled flights with recurring inconvenience to many regular customers. The absence of EHT (the crashed Cessna) from the fleet compounded our difficulties in maintaining our schedules by taking away our fleet backup capability. The downstream effect of the accident has thus been far more significant than we ever envisaged, with our gross revenue and cash flow remaining in a depressed state… diligent efforts are being made to seek outside support in the form of additional share capital to provide a stronger base of working capital “in the rebuilding of public confidence in Air Albatross that we now face.

Expanding on the memo Murray Turley said that when Air Albatross had the Tory Channel accident, it had been heading for a total of 12,500 passengers for the month. That would have provided a “substantial cash surplus”. “We would be quite comfortable above 11,000 to 11,500 a month in terms of cash flow. However, since the accident the numbers had dropped to fewer than 10,000 a month. The drop in cash flow resulting from the Tory Channel accident has been the prime cause of our present difficulties. If the crash had not occurred, with the normal passenger growth we would have achieved, the cash flow would have been more than adequate to see us through.”

Operations continued throughout November but during that month the airline had two emergency landings on one engine and this further eroded customer confidence. Coupled with this the company was having difficulty with maintenance issues on the Metroliners leading to increasing flight delays or cancellations.

On the 6th of December 1985 the airline announced it was direct Nelson-Auckland flights citing a lack of patronage coupled with lack of aircraft. The airline maintained indirect flights to Auckland through Palmerston North and New Plymouth.

By mid-December the situation was critical and Murray Turley, revealed that his airline was on the brink of financial collapse. Mr Turley said, the company had been discussing taking in other businesses as partners. The company needs a broader capital base - $1 million to $1.5 million would satisfy that. The time factor is critical. Every effort is being made and will be made over the next few working days to find a solution. It was “quite feasible” for Air Albatross to trade out of its difficulties if it could arrange the urgent injection of share capital.

In the days following Air Albatross received widespread public support but this was to no avail. The Metroliners were not helping the situation in these last days with irate travellers confronted with three of the four Metroliners grounded due to mechanical defects. On the 20th of December 1985 the ceased operations after announcing it was going into voluntary receivership. The final flight, Albatross 261 took off from Wellington for Nelson at 8.30 pm, the Metroliner’s pilot signalled the end of the airline’s fight to stay in business with a last pass over the runway and a farewell wing-waggle. About 100 staff lost their jobs and no redundancy agreement was offered to them. 1500 people held useless tickets for the Christmas period and 4000 to 5000 others with advance bookings. In the days following it was announced that the secured and unsecured debts of Air Albatross added up to more than $5 million. Attempts by various individual to resurrect the airline failed.

As the autopsy was carried out on the airline’s finances it became clear that the airline had not been trading profitably either as at March or September 1985. By mid-1986 the last of the Nelson-based Air Albatross aircraft had been sold and unsecured creditors had been told by letter that there would be no money for them.

Swearingen Metroliner ZK-SWC being prepared for export at Nelson on 21 January 1986
Cessna 402 ZK-DHW awaiting a buyer at Nelson on 22 January 1986

Despite its failure Air Albatross holds an important place in New Zealand aviation history. What it achieved was what I believe Air New Zealand was later to look for in Air Nelson and Eagle Air, the birth of a national commuter airline.


  1. Goes to show what could have been if the air licening authority didnt exist!

  2. Excellent story Steve, and great detail

  3. A great piece which also illustrates the supreme difficulties of 3rd level aviation. Back in 1985 $5m was heaps of dollars. Looking back at the demise of GBA FOL around 3 years ago they fell over for around $3.7m (almost 2 years gross turnover then). You do have to wonder why so many other businesses allow such large losses to continue and then take them all under. However, Murray Turley at least tried - how many havent even bothered but are prepared to criticize those that give it their best shot. The old saying, better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all. Been there, done that - several times (not the failed bit) but it is very time consuming and requires total focus.

  4. Fantastic and very interesting writeup thanks Steve.

  5. What a lot of hard work you have put in to research and write such a long historical record of an airline that I knew very little about. Thanks so much Steve!!!

  6. fantastic research and fascinating story thanks!

  7. Nice, although i'm reading this quite late, interesting story!