Air2there welcomes looming competition

KAY BLUNDELL
Last updated 09:48 07/02/2011
Richard Baldwin

BRING IT ON: Air2there owner Richard Baldwin beside one of his Cessna Caravan aircraft. Photo: ANDREW GORRIE.

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After toughing out the recession, small commercial flight operator air2there is welcoming the imminent arrival of big brother Air New Zealand at Paraparaumu Airport.

The brainchild of former Paraparaumu Airport owner Murray Cole, air2there was launched in December 2004 with great expectations to fill a gap in the market and provide alternative quick transport for frustrated motorists battling long delays and congestion on State Highway 1 into Wellington.

Starting with one plane - a 14-seat Grand Caravan - the company has added two 10-seater Chieftains and leases an extra plane when necessary.

The company started with flights to Blenheim, Nelson, Masterton, Wellington and Palmerston North but cut Masterton and Palmerston North within about a year when it found there was no market, instead increasing its flights to Blenheim and Nelson.

A Wairarapa pilot launched a Masterton-Paraparaumu-Auckland circuit about eight years ago but failed to attract enough patronage.

Richard Baldwin bought air2there in 2008 and has battled tough times over the past year.

"Business today is hard work. We have been sharing the pain with other businesses. It is a highly regulated business. There are no grey areas - you either do it properly or not at all."

With a turnover of less than $5 million a year, he has boosted business by offering chartered flights and special services including transporting caskets, accompanied by mourning families, around the country for burials.

The firm's planes also carry dogs and cats which were transported in cages in luggage compartments until one yappy canine passenger irritated a group of tourists so much that pets were subsequently kept in the cargo hold department.

The exception is dogs for the blind, which sit alongside their charges.

While there is a distinctly relaxed atmosphere when the pilot strolls across the tarmac and welcomes passengers before hopping up the steps to take the controls, Mr Baldwin said they adhered to strict CAA safety regulations.

Their oldest regular passenger is a 106-year-old woman who visits her 101-year-old sister in Blenheim. A group of sprightly 80- and 90-year-olds enjoy day trips to Blenheim for special lunches accompanied by wine tours.

"We help them, and their cartons of wine, into taxis when they get back."

Bob, the miniature female dachshund, serves as the terminal's drug and security dog.

"When I introduce her, some shifty passengers nervously look at their bags, particularly ones from Nelson," he said.

Although the past year has been tough financially, they have managed to retain their 14 staff, including four full- time and three part-time pilots.

"It has been challenging trying to minimise the impact of the recession and flow-on effects to our staff," Mr Baldwin said.

Their cheapest regular flight starts at $90.

Aviation is a family passion. Mr Baldwin's late father had worked as an engineer for the Royal New Zealand Air Force, one brother is a flying doctor, another was a helicopter pilot until he died in a flying accident, his son works as a pilot in Mongolia, and two nephews are commercial helicopter pilots.

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The recent announcement that Air Nelson, a subsidiary of Air New Zealand, would start commercial flights from Paraparaumu and Auckland on Labour Weekend would have a positive spin-off for air2there, Mr Baldwin said.

The introduction of Air NZ flights gave them great exposure.

"It is fantastic. The major benefit will be increased public awareness - people will come here to travel."

He planned to replace one of his 20-year old Chieftains with a 10-seater XL750 built in Hamilton this year.

"There are exciting opportunities coming up for the district and the region. Paraparaumu is seen as a great opportunity for Air NZ and ourselves," Mr Baldwin said.

- BusinessDay

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