Airborne heroes fill vital gap

Last week I highlighted 10 businesses which, in my view, stood out as excellent in 2016.

I had a lot of feedback which was great, with a number of business owners reminding me why they deserved consideration and – to be fair – they all had pretty good cases. It is great to see the quality of service and products strong and improving in Whanganui.

I said I was going to choose an overall winner of the inaugural Business Zen Award and (there is no point dramatising the announcement because by now you have already scanned the article …) the winner is:

Air Chathams

This article won’t mention by name the business that once provided the passenger air service into Whanganui before it dumped us, but I make inference on the basis of the significant gap that was created by the move.

Such a gap could have been a major deflator of economic activity and a long-term detractor from the many great things our city and region has to offer.

When I first heard that our only option for flights could have seen us stuck with a Palmerston North commute, it felt much like a Rhys Darby safety video – unfunny and anger-inducing.

Enter Air Chathams which has picked up the Auckland route since we bade farewell to the taxpayer-owned incumbent.

It was (and is) a brave move which is not without risk, but Air Chathams represents that great spirit of small-to-medium business which we see in our region – plucky determination, malleability and a desire to do really well.

The values of this business are evident in each interaction. Gone are the days of sitting on hold for ages to make an inquiry – the phone is answered in seconds by a friendly voice. Gone are the tiny planes with no service – replaced by a fast plane with leg room, coffee and Timtams.

But most impressive is the fact that the extortive pricing for Whanganui travellers which accompanied our national carrier has been replaced by extremely reasonable fares.

This from an airline which many of us would not have known a great deal about – however, Air Chathams is now the largest privately-owned airline in New Zealand, owned by Craig and Marion Emeny.

They started in 1984, based on the Chatham Islands, and flew between Chathams and Napier with passengers, general freight, and seafood. They now export 400 tonnes of live crayfish annually, and over 700 tonnes of Chatham Island seafood of all species.

Over the years Air Chathams has operated under lease and contract for a number of airlines, and have operated in Fiji, Niue, Darwin and the Kingdom of Tonga. They have now set up a large hangar facility at Auckland International Airport, which provides flight operations and engineering services to Air Chathams and other third party airlines.

One of the unfortunate “maxed-out corporate” (to quote a friend of mine) decisions by the previous provider of Whanganui’s air service was to restrict access of paid Koru Club members to the airport domestic lounges.

In this regard, Air Chathams is looking at incentives for travellers such as frequent flyer and reward benefits. Their fast bag equivalent is a good feature too.

Talking to them, it is clear that Whanganui is very important to Air Chathams. They have invested heavily in the Saab 340 aircraft for Whanganui, and it appears to be doing the trick based on good patronage in the past two months operations and great feedback from the travelling public.

However, it remains crucial that we continue to support them.

Duane Emeny of Air Chathams says they are “in this for the long haul”. This is an airline which isn’t just interested in providing a service, but to also develop a community and region by working closely with local business and government to help that happen.

I will sign off 2016 in the same manner (though not as accomplished) as Etevihe or “E” – who has to be one of the best hostesses in the air right now – I hope that you have enjoyed our journey through the year of business.