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The airline’s specialist freight Convair has a 7400 kg maximum payload

Air Chathams’ freight offering set to lift off – By Dave MacIntyre

An attitude of ‘if it fits in the door, we’ll carry it’ is behind a drive by Air Chathams to significantly expand its air freight profile in the New Zealand market, particularly in key regions and on its sole international route to Norfolk Island.

In recent years, Air Chathams has risen in prominence due to its preparedness to seize niche opportunities when Air New Zealand has quit certain regional centres. It began serving the Auckland to Whakatane route in 2015, Auckland to Whanganui in 2016, and Auckland to the Kapiti Coast in 2018. Then in 2019 it took over a fourth former Air New Zealand route by starting a weekly service from Auckland to Norfolk Island.

In all these cases, public attention has focused on the availability of a passenger link, but a part of Air Chathams’ offering that remains somewhat unrecognised is its significant freight operation – plus its ‘we can do it’ attitude to handling freight requirements.

Varied air freight cargo ready for loading – the airline also carries live animals 

Air Chathams has three Convair 580s, one with a full 50-seat passenger configuration, a second which has a versatile ‘combi’ freight and passenger configuration, and a third which is a fully-dedicated freighter, purchased from Freightways when it retired its Convair fleet. The freight-only Convair has a 7400 kg maximum payload, excluding pallet and cargon (wheeled pallet) weights.

Underpinning the freight operation is the almost 1000 tonnes of seafood product carried from the Chatham Islands annually. Added to that is the general freight from mainland New Zealand back to the Chathams, plus a freight contract with Freightways to operate the freight-only aircraft between Auckland and Christchurch each week, Monday through Thursday.

Core market

The Chatham Islands remain the airline’s core market, and have been since it was set up by Craig Emeny in 1984. He first moved to the Chatham Islands as a pilot to operate services primarily between Chatham and Pitt Islands. At that time, the lack of regularity in flights to mainland New Zealand saw him start his own airline and begin operations to mainland airports. 

The family concern grew, with one son, Duane Emeny, now a pilot and the company’s general manager, and his brother, Matt, also a pilot.

As the freight and passenger market developed, Air Chathams grew from operating small piston-engine aircraft to large 50-seat two-engine turbo-props. In 2014 it established a flight operations and maintenance base at Auckland International Airport. From this base the company provides maintenance services both internally and to third-party airlines under contract. 

Even with the expansion into regional New Zealand markets and to Norfolk Island, the airline remains an integral part of the Chatham Islands local community, while priding itself on being actively involved in developing local economies in its new destinations.

Many of the airline’s staff have been with it since it was formed, and the Air Chathams success story was reflected in Craig Emeny being awarded an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2017.

A foundation built on freight

Freight was in many ways the foundation of the business – being all about supporting the Chatham Islands’ fishing industry and ensuring the higher-value live crayfish market could be developed, as opposed to the frozen cray tails which fetched a lower price and were transported to mainland New Zealand by ship.

Frequent air connectivity enabled the live crayfish industry and became a lifeline for the Chathams Islands community, which has the highest GDP per capita of anywhere in New Zealand, entirely due to the seafood trade. 

However, the airline’s freight offering has perhaps not been a major selling point to small companies and people in the street. 

Duane Emeny says many people are not aware of the possibility of using Air Chathams for regional freight shipments (for example, sending something from Kapiti, Whakatane or Whanganui to Auckland).

“We really need to increase our awareness of this side of our airline offering. We are in the process of rolling out a web-based cargo system called Nexlog. It will be a game-changer for our operation going forward, including the ability for customers to track their consignments online via an AWB (air waybill) number. Our rates on mainland North Island schedules are significantly cheaper too – $2 per kilo with a minimum single unit cost of $15.”

‘We’ll carry anything’

The other key point the airline is keen to project is its flexibility. Basically, the message is ‘if you have something to transport, we’ll carry it’. 

“We carry everything,” says Duane Emeny. “We have built an airline around providing essential travel and freight to isolated communities. We are very proactive and practical in our approach to cargo handling, and will always consider a consignment regardless of the dimensions. Our mixed fleet gives us more flexibility when it comes to cargo requests and charter.”

This includes pets and animals securely caged with appropriate absorbent material lining the base of the cage. Standard freight rates are charged per kilogram plus a handling fee of $25 per animal.

Dangerous goods can be carried in some circumstances, but the airline adheres strictly to IATA dangerous goods regulations as to what can be carried in an aircraft. Some regional airports also have no facilities to transfer dangerous goods.

The airline is also conscious of its biosecurity responsibilities. “We are very aware of the fragile nature of the Chatham Islands and its agriculture and fisheries industries, and ensure that we do not accept anything for carriage that might cause risk to those industries,” adds Mr Emeny.

Untapped possibilities

Looking ahead, the airline sees its business to the Chathams will likely continue to be steady, only limited by allocated fishing quota levels. “As tourism builds on the island, the demand for general air freight will increase. We are starting to send more international cargo from Auckland to Norfolk (mainly perishables), and would like to see this continue to grow,” says Mr Emeny.

However, the regional services offer further untapped possibilities. “Our mainland routes have a lot of potential and there is generally always capacity on those flights, especially outside of the business peak travel times,” Mr Emeny concludes.

Dave MacIntyre is an award-winning journalist who specialises in transport and infrastructure issues within New Zealand  d.macintyre@xtra.co.nz

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