Sounds Air near 100,000 passengers in windfall on old Air New Zealand routes
Regional operator Sounds Air expects to carry a total of 100,000 passengers this year as it continues to pick up passengers from old Air New Zealand routes.
The Marlborough-based airline been operating for nearly 30 years, flying in and around the Marlborough Sounds, Wellington, Westport, Nelson, Taupo and now Hawke's Bay.
Managing director and co-owner Andrew Crawford said when he joined the business in December 2003, Sounds Air had one plane and carried 14,000 passengers annually.
The privately-owned airline had gradually added routes and aircraft and had a breakthrough in 2015 when Air New Zealand reorganised its regional services.
The company added three extra aircraft on routes from Westport and Taupo to Wellington, after local authorities selected the airline as their "preferred supplier". The endorsement boosted its loadings.
Air New Zealand had shown no sign of wanting to reinstate its Taupo and Westport flights through Wellington, Crawford said. "They won't come back; they're going to bigger and bigger planes - it just won't happen."
Sounds Air had no ambition to challenge Air New Zealand as an operator on main trunk routes, he said. "The fact is, we're a second-tier airline. We know our place in the world."
The company employs about 60 staff – including 22 pilots - most of whom are based in Wellington, but also in Blenheim, Picton, Nelson, Paraparaumu, Westport, Napier and Taupo.
Sounds Air is owned by Crawford, Cliff Marchant and Stephen Handyside. In 2009 they sold the remaining quarter of the business to four minor shareholders, who have cash in the company, but no hand in running it.
Crawford said Sounds Air saw potential in being able to work with Air New Zealand to feed flyers from smaller centres on to international connections, but so far the national carrier had not shown much interest in the concept.
An enduring challenge for Sounds Air was changing passenger attitudes to flying in small planes.
Crawford said the company's regular customers in Marlborough, Nelson and Wellington knew the company's experience in local conditions, and it had spent time explaining the safety of small planes when it started the Taupo to Wellington route.
Three large companies with a policy of not travelling on single engine, single pilot aircraft were persuaded to change that after the airline explained that staff had extensive training in flying in turbulent conditions.
"Once people get that factual information, rather than hearsay, they are away and can't believe what they've been missing," Crawford said.
The company was well aware of blemishes in its flight history.
Under previous owners in 1989, a company plane was in a non-fatal crash involving five passengers and a pilot at Tiraora Lodge in Pelorus Sound.
Then in 1996, again under previous owners, five passengers died in a fatal Sounds Air crash near Picton.
In 2006, Civil Aviation Authority investigated Sound Air's maintenance programme after a mechanical problem over Cook Strait during a flight from Wellington to Kaikoura.
The airline's current owners decided to get rid of its piston-engine planes after that incident, and its safety record had since been "spotless", Crawford said.
A daily challenge for the airline was finding new staff, retaining existing ones, and ensuring everyone was well trained, Crawford said.
"We have tried to pay our staff well, they enjoy travel benefits, and recently we have added health care as part of their employment package. It is so much easier to pay people more money than recruit and train new staff. The cost of staff turnover to the business can be huge. "
One of the best parts of the business was online bookings, which meant no waiting for payments until the 20th of the month. One of the worst aspects was exposure to a raft of airline industry fees, Crawford said.
Sounds Air was started by Cliff and Diane Marchant in 1986. They had a vision of providing low cost inter-island transport to provide locals and tourists with easy access to the Marlborough Sounds.