There aren’t many airlines that can boast having a functioning DC-3 in their fleet. Even fewer can claim they provide service to destinations named Whakatane and Whanganui.
But Air Chathams, a small privately owned airline based in New Zealand claims both.
The airline was established in 1984 by its current owners, Craig and Marion Emeny, to transport freight and passengers between Chatham and Pitt islands. It also provided a vital link by transporting fish and other freight between the Chathams and mainland New Zealand.
In recent years, as Air New Zealand has reduced its domestic service, Air Chathams saw an opportunity and stepped in to fill the breech.
Today, it serves six destinations on the New Zealand mainland, in addition to the Chathams, and has announced plans to begin service between Auckland – New Zealand’s largest city, located on the north island — and Australia’s Norfolk Island in September.
The Chatham Islands are 1058 km, or 657 miles, from Auckland. Norfolk Island is 1074 km
Air Chathams’ fleet of 16 aircraft includes five Convair 580s, four Fairchild Metro IIIs, one ATR 72-500 and a Cessna 206. And of course, the DC-3.
The company currently employs 127 people.
Lyn Cheyne, Air Chathams’ sales and marketing manager, wrote in response to emailed questions, that passenger numbers have steadily increased in recent years “as we began operating in Kapiti Coast [a section of the coast of the south-western North Island] and undertook additional charter contract work.”
Today, the Kapiti Coast, portions of which served as the location for Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Ring” films, is one of New Zealand’s fastest-growing regions and attracts tourists from around the world.
But contrary to what one might think, it’s not increased tourism that’s responsible for the growing number of Air ‘ passengers.
“We fly to destinations where the main carrier [Air New Zealand] no longer does,” she wrote. “As a result, these tend to be regional destinations with a lesser number of tourists.”
The airline doesn’t track what percentage of its passengers are foreign tourists. “The majority of our passengers would be domestic passengers, but this level of information is not collected by the airline,” Cheyne wrote.
In fact, while Air Chathams’ web site www.airchathams.co.nz might look like a tourism brochure touting the beauties of New Zealand, Cheyne insists attracting foreign visitors to more remote regions of the country is not its intent.
“Our promotion is not about attracting foreign tourists to travel beyond the big cities, as this is the role of the regional tourism organizations in each destination port,” Cheyne wrote. “We work with those organizations as we are able to and profile those destinations through social media to our New Zealand (and soon-to-be Norfolk Island) customers.”
Instead, the airline seems determined to remain close to its roots.
“A significant part of the business is freight –specifically for the fishing industry in the
Cheyne declined to provide information regarding the company’s revenues.
The carrier faces limited competition. “No other airline directly services Whanganui, Whakatane, Kapiti Coast, Chatham Islands and Norfolk Island for flights to and from Auckland,” Cheyne said.
“The Chatham Islands own a shipping line and freighter for cargo and you can fly Air New Zealand to Norfolk Island, but only via mainland Australia,” she said.
Other than the new service to Norfolk Island, the airline has no immediate expansion plans.
“We have no further expansion plans at present, other than investing in replacement aircraft as our current fleet of Convairs age and developing the Norfolk Island route and increasing services to the Chatham Islands,” Che
One aircraft they won’t be replacing is the DC-3, which first took to the sky in 1945.
The 25-seat DC-3 is primarily used for scenic flights and on occasion charter flights, according to Cheyne. That should be more than enough to keep the aircraft busy for the foreseeable future.