Whakatāne flyers delighted with more room

Air Chathams’ new SAAB 340 touches down for its first scheduled flight into Whakatāne Airport. Photo: Mike Kelly.

Air Chathams’ new SAAB 340 touched down on its inaugural scheduled flight into Whakatāne.

The larger, more spacious and comfortable aircraft is welcomed by passengers of the daily scheduled flights between Whakatāne and Auckland.

It replaces the Fairchild Metroliner III, which seated only 18 passengers and was relatively cramped.

Some passenger-carrying test flights of the new 34-seater had been made during August to test its suitability for the route, with one passenger commenting that it was much more comfortable, especially for taller travellers.

“There is a lot more leg room and it’s great to have overhead storage and even be able to stand up.”

The new aircraft also offers inflight service and toilet facilities.

Air Chathams chief operating officer Duane Emeny says introducing the new aircraft to the Whakatāne route was a key milestone for the airline and a significant upgrade to the Eastern Bay air service.

The airline has maintained the Whakatāne to Auckland route for the past eight years, since Air New Zealand discontinued the service, citing commercial reasons.

“I’d like to think that our family business has proven that is not the case and look forward continued growth on the route with the larger plane.”

This date also marks the end of an era for regional air travel in New Zealand, with a farewell to the Fairchild Metroliner, which has served New Zealand’s smaller regional centres for decades.

The Whakatāne to Auckland flight service with Air Chathams was the last-standing route for the iconic aeroplane.

It leaves with a touch of nostalgia for those who’ve travelled for decades on the “Pencil Plane” - just one of the many nicknames assigned to the Texas-build craft.

“For me, it will be sad to say farewell our faithful Metroliner. An aircraft that played a key part in the development of New Zealand’s aviation industry and has served the Eastern Bay well through some challenging years for the region.”

In partnership with local government and business entities, Air Chathams’ shared vision is to further develop the service with the larger aircraft into the future.

Mayor Victor Luca and deputy mayor Lesley Immink, along with several of the district council’s senior managers attended the Monday event and Dr Luca cut a ribbon to allow the first passengers to enter the airport terminal.

Dr Luca has previously spoken about the importance of the air service to Whakatane, pointing out that amongst other organisations it is an important resource for our hospital, facilitating visits from doctors and other specialists.

“The 'Flying Pencil' becomes part of our district history,” Dr Luca says.

“It served us well, but we now welcome the increased capacity and comfort of the SAAB 340 onto the Whakatāne route.

"The timing is great, heading into the holiday season and I hope our families, friends, and friends we are yet to meet, consider this new flight option for shorter breaks without needing to drive.”

Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air.

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