The long-term closure of the main road between the cities of Blenheim and Christchurch caused by the magnitude 7.8 earthquake that devastated areas of New Zealand’s South Island in November 2016 has produced enough extra passenger traffic on the route for regional carrier Sounds Air to add aircraft larger than the nine-seat Pilatus PC-12s it operates now.
Based in Picton near the northeastern tip of the South Island, Sounds Air flies five PC-12s on domestic sectors of around one hour, as well as three 12-seat Cessna 208B Grand Caravans and two 12-seat Cessna 208 Caravans on sectors of 30 minutes or less. Before last November’s earthquake, Sounds Air operated only a handful of PC-12 round trips on the Blenheim-Christchurch rotation—which involves a 50-minute flight each way—in any given week.
However, speaking with AIN at the recent Caribbean Aviation Meetup conference in Sint Maarten and in subsequent e-mails, Sounds Air managing director and majority shareholder Andrew Crawford said the carrier now operates up to 22 PC-12 round trips a week on the Blenheim-Christchurch route as a result of the road closure. Crawford added that the closure generates more traffic demand for Sounds Air beyond even today’s increased schedule and noted that the main road between the two cities will remain closed for more than a year to come.
According to Crawford, Sounds Air is looking for larger aircraft to meet the extra Blenheim-Christchurch demand and also to benefit from what he said is a forthcoming move by Air New Zealand regional subsidiary Air Nelson to end services with 50-seat turboprops at some New Zealand destinations.
Air Nelson operates 23 fifty-seat Bombardier Q300s. It bases its operations in Nelson, which lies only 37 miles from Picton by air but 83 miles by a road that winds through ranges of hills between the two towns. From Nelson Sounds Air serves Wellington and Paraparaumu, across the Cook Strait on New Zealand’s North Island.
However, Sounds Air does not intend to add 50-seat aircraft. For it to do so “would be a huge investment” and “a lot could go wrong,” said Crawford. “We are looking at Beech 1900Ds and potentially Saab 340Bs as the two options that are potentially viable,” he explained.
When Sounds Air acquires regional aircraft larger than its PC-12s, it will certainly fly them on the Blenheim to Christchurch sector. But other Sounds Air routes also show potential for larger aircraft, according to Crawford. “We are currently [performing] an assessment of what type is best for the passengers and the business before we can make a decision,” he said.
Sounds Air harbors “no immediate plans” to expand its route network, however. “The initial need is for larger aircraft on the existing sector,” said Crawford. With those in place, the carrier will grow from carrying 125,000 passengers a year today to carrying 200,000 to 300,000 passengers annually “in two to three years...The possibilities are endless for the next five years,” he concluded.