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International, interesting, innovative. All eyes on Kāpiti Airport.

Updated: Nov 8, 2023

It could be said that the Kāpiti Coast is an unassuming, laid back, slice of coastal paradise. Where grassroots businesses are working hard, and – compared to the hustle and bustle of Wellington City – things are a little quieter around these parts.


It could also be said that there are a number of internationally connected, interesting and innovative people working within the aviation industry who think incredibly highly of Kāpiti Airport: its history, its national importance, and its future opportunities.


We had conversations with Rhyan Wardman (Sounds Air), Katherine Corich (Sysdoc) and Duane Emeny (Air Chathams) to understand their unique perspectives on the potential that exists at Kāpiti Airport.


"I learnt to fly in Kāpiti, and I live in Wellington. Sounds Air is one of the oldest airlines in New Zealand, we’ve been going for 30-odd years. I originally invested in Sounds Air in 2009. Back then we were a little regional airline with three Cessna Caravans flying the Cook Strait.


The next step was to do a bit of regional expansion. That’s where we introduced a new type of aircraft which is pressurised and can go higher and faster. It’s called a Pilatus PC12 and that enabled us to make greater connections across the region. We introduced several new routes and we quickly went from flying the Cook Strait to having a network focusing on connectivity that spanned from Taupō to all the way to Wānaka.


Then in 2019 we did some strategic reviews of the business - imagining where we wanted to be in five years’ time. We were looking at all kinds of things - the anticipated aircraft we wanted to fly, the increase in demand, the connectivity. In that review it became apparent that there was an evolution in aviation that was happening in which the traditional power source, i.e. the propulsion systems, were being reassessed under a decarbonised lens with the idea that bringing a zero emission solution to the sector was underway. We cottoned on quickly that the early adopters of this technology would be the smaller regional operators like ourselves, providing short hop connecting flights between the regions.


So in 2021 we commissioned a feasibility study co-funded with EECA (Energy Efficiency Conservation Authority), and the summary was compelling. It comes down to the inherent simplicity of the propulsion system. An electric motor attached to a battery is a far more simple thing than a gas turbine engine. That’s reflected in the cost of acquisition and the cost of maintenance. Which means theoretically we should be able to offer more services to more people at a reduced price.


It was a moment in business that doesn’t happen often: seeing a feasibility study that concludes lower cost, increased services, and no emissions. To us it looked like an extraordinary win-win situation.


From there we started engaging with equipment manufacturers across the world, looking at batteries, hybrid models, and hydrogen fuel cell technology. Particularly exciting is that in the US they’re already looking at hybrid systems on the Cessna Caravan which is one of the same models of aircraft that we’re flying already.


Alongside sourcing the right equipment we are engaged with government across different agencies and we established an Airport Infrastructure Forum which includes Kāpiti Airport, because it was anticipated that it will be a key hub for early adopters of this technology to enable the facilitation of these first short hop flights. It’s about looking at what’s required to make it happen at a local level – electricity supply, hydrogen supply, and other considerations which will be unique to the electrification of aviation.

I think the most important point for everyone to understand is that it’s not a matter of if this happens, it’s when. When this technology is unlocked and it becomes mainstay, it will improve regional connectivity, and the technology will then improve at a rapid rate. The position of Kāpiti means it’s perfectly placed to be a hub to facilitate a short hop electric network, in fact it would be central to a number of smaller airports in the immediate surrounds and critical to the success of other hubs.


The other important points are that reduced emission in the aviation sector is on its way, and it’s a quieter solution too. And, over time, we anticipate that the cost to fly regionally will decrease – if people use the services provided.


The really exciting opportunity for New Zealand as a whole is that most of our energy supply comes from renewable sources - green energy that aligns with our clean, green image, and this is a way to not only continue that story but to also lead the charge by embracing the challenge to act quickly and become experts in the support services and infrastructure required to make this a reality. Imagine a tech hub at Kāpiti where we could train pilots, have simulators, get engineers up to speed, and pioneer the solutions for this next wave of technology.


The reason we need to talk about this now, before the technology is here, is because we need to get used to the idea that our connectivity will be reimagined. It’s a new ecosystem if you like, which people will be able to look at and think ‘wow, how do we get that in our community.’

Electric cars are a good analogy. Look at how quickly they became mainstream and how quickly the technology evolved. Nowadays there is no such thing as ‘range anxiety’ if you were to buy the latest model of e-vehicle because the infrastructure is there and the cars can go further. We have seen that development in just five short years.


The rate of change that happens within the aviation sector will be just as rapid, if not more so, than e-vehicles. It’s coming. And it’s going to be a great thing when it arrives.”


 


“My introduction to the world of aviation came from my father who was in Fleet Air Arm flying off aircraft carriers and later working as an airline pilot. I dreamed of being a pilot. However, women just weren’t getting employed in either military or civil aviation at that time. Instead, I went to uni and completed a degree in French and Sociolinguistics. Still really wanting to fly, I decided to self-fund my training.


I learned to fly at Paraparaumu Airport, as it was known then, working for IBM to pay for lessons. I got my private pilot licence, commercial licence and instructor rating all while I was working in IT.


Eventually I decided to do an OE before settling into a serious career, landing an IT job on the London Stock Exchange ‘Big Bang’ project. The Stock Exchange had been deregulated and became a private limited company. Our project was to computerise the stock market records of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – migrating them from manual, paper-based tickets to digital records. I felt very lucky to be working on this incredible project. When my boss asked how I found working in IT compared to the structured approach of aviation, I said jokingly ‘if we flew aeroplanes in the way that some IT projects are run, they would crash’. He asked me to describe the differences and although I had to think quickly, the

things I said are what I think any pilot would say.


Firstly, in aviation we have a deep respect for operational excellence and end-to- end processes. Whatever your role is in the aviation enterprise, it’s an important role, and the rest of the system doesn’t function without you. We understand what each other does. In the event of a safe flight it’s totally seamless, and in the event of an emergency, what is beautiful about the aviation system is that the processes are so joined up and so well-rehearsed that they work. It’s the end-to-end process that makes them really safe.


Secondly, we use simulators for training which we have been using since the 70s. You can simulate anything - aircraft type, performance, airport, lighting, weather – you name it, we simulate it, to give pilots hands-on experience. Simulation is a lower cost way to learn and gives people real practice.


Thirdly, we have a ‘just culture’. If something is not working in the whole system, you’re encouraged to speak up and say what you’re thinking. This openness helps to keep the system safe. Safe whistleblowing whereby everyone in the system is open to learning ultimately protects your passengers and crew.


My boss encouraged us to apply these principles of aviation to our work and as crazy as it sounds, I accidentally founded Sysdoc which grew really quickly to 40 people. By this time women pilots were finally getting recognition as being competent and ready to fly, so I had a huge decision to make. On one hand it was the perfect time to pursue my dream of being a commercial pilot. On the other hand, there were 40 of us who all believed that the world would be a better place if we used aviation principles to help organisations to be more efficient and safer.


Sysdoc has continued to grow and I am super proud of what our teams achieve in projects all over the world; we’ve worked on projects in 72 countries – in energy, food production, automotive, manufacturing, supply chain, public sector, banking, finance and telco. The principles of aviation underpin everything we do at Sysdoc, however the language we use to describe how we help our clients reads a bit differently: business process engineering and optimisation, defining new operating models, organisation design, change management, training, e-learning, creating simulations, gamification, building knowledge portals. It’s a neat set of services and we work on complex transformation programmes that help to shape the future of the companies for whom we are working.


Recently I have found myself coming back to aviation. I still chair Sysdoc Group which is run by phenomenal CEOs who do an incredible job. Again, almost by accident, and I think life has these little serendipitous moments, I was giving a keynote speech in Berlin about disruptive innovation in transport and transitions in energy industries. While there I was asked if I would consider putting myself forward for the interview process to be a non-exec director for UK Civil Aviation Authority. They were looking for people who understand the intersection between aviation, innovation and disruptive technologies. I have just started my second term as a CAA NED and joined CAAi, the CAA UK International board.


Continuing the aviation theme, as a member of Air New Zealand’s Sustainability Advisory Panel, I am privileged to work with an ambitious airline that thrives on solving complex problems with simple solutions. Decarbonisation of aviation is one of the greatest opportunities of the modern era and Air NZ is up for the challenge. Aviation is an industry that has been innovative from the dawn of time: moon landings, supersonic flight, satellites etc. The aerospace industry thrives on problem solving.


Completing the portfolio of aviation roles, I am an Independent Member of Te Tauaarangi o Aotearoa, the Royal NZ Air Force Leadership Board. I feel lucky to have gone full circle and come back to aviation. I hope to bring skills that will encourage young people to pursue a career in aviation’s exciting future.


Aviation isn’t something we should refer to as a big problem; it’s an exciting launchpad for leading the future transitions the planet so needs. Kiwis are globally dispersed and aviation is how we connect with the world. Importantly, it’s an industry that has the ability to deliver breakthrough innovations in its DNA. Imagine an innovation and tech hub at Kāpiti Airport. The opportunity that exists for Kāpiti Airport is to bring innovations which really start to lift the game of decarbonisation for aviation, speed up the adoption of electrification, partake in research, and provide testing for sustainable aviation fuels.

Using the principles of aviation to develop simulations in non-aviation settings also has huge potential. Sysdoc worked for a hospital creating scenario-based modelling and simulations for the move of a critical care unit from one location to another. When you’re moving people in intensive care, there’s a high risk that something may happen to that person during transport. We encouraged the organisation to think about what eventualities could arise. Simulation modelling and scenario training ensured that all critical care patients were transported safely. When staff needed to respond, they knew exactly what to do because of the simulation training.


Sysdoc also co-designed the end-to-end processes for Breast Cancer UK, a project dear to my heart as my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer at 29 years old. At my first screening after we had overhauled the processes, I booked a morning off work for my mammogram, as it had previously taken a few hours. I entered the trailer unit for my appointment and was out in nine minutes. Seeing first-hand the principles of aviation applied in a health setting was magical.


Kāpiti airport was built to a high standard by the US military and purposefully strengthened. Like all airfields it requires maintenance, but it has good bones. It’s only 50 km from Wellington and the reality is, not if, but when we have an earthquake, it will be the base of safety for Wellington. If you look at the Civil

Defence plan, it shows that each of the regional airfields have their own unique and independent roles in the event of a national emergency or a major disaster. Kāpiti is a national strategic infrastructure asset which is a lifesaving asset for everyone in New Zealand. There should be no question whether to retain it or not.


As the airport is close to parliament and all the agencies that are responsible for innovation, decarbonisation and aviation advancements, it’s perfect for future testing for innovative technologies like carbon neutral fuels and distribution networks, drones, flying taxis, vertical take-off and landing and electric aeroplanes. Short hop electric aviation is really doable between all the regions of NZ. Look at all the trials around the world and it’s the places that have similar needs and geography that it’s working for, like the Highlands and Islands of Scotland and Norway.


Finally, Kāpiti Airport is at the heart of the community, It’s key to mana whenua of Puketāpu Hāpu and the aspirations for rangitahi and future generations. Imagine how impactful the co-creation of future flight and tourism could be for the people of this region?"

 

"I come from an aviation family. My grandfather was a WW11 pilot who managed to get himself shot down over Rangoon or Burma and was taken as a prisoner of war, but he managed to survive that. He became a persistent character! As a family we have acknowledged how this flowed through to his kids.


My father Craig went into the Airforce, and learned the trade as an aviation mechanic. He also was pursuing his aviation licences at the time and then an opportunity came up to go to the Chatham Islands with another company to work for them providing services between Chatham Islands and Pitt Island.


He was doing flights between the two, carrying anything and everything. He got to know the place and married a local girl, and quickly decided there needed to be an air service, which was effectively the creation of Air Chathams.


I came along in 1984 and we officially got our licence in 1985, back in the day when you had to put on a lovely suit and go into Wellington and tell them why you should be granted a licence. Dad managed to do that and then started flying a very small aeroplane called a Cessna 337 between Chatham Islands and the likes of Bridge Pa, Hastings and Napier.


As things carried on there was more demand, the service was working, and people liked the fact that there was a local running it. So we slowly stepped up to bigger aircraft and then in the early 90s we got a Fairchild MetroLiner with a payload of 2000 kg which can be operated as passenger or freight or both – perfect for Chatham Islands. That was when we started flying scheduled services, first into Napier and then the likes of Wellington and Christchurch where there is a strong connection to the Chathams.


In the mid 90s we stepped it up again and got a Convair 580 which was a game changer for the island because it was bigger and had more power. It could carry a really big load backwards and forwards. Dad really pioneered the export of live crayfish off the Chatham Islands with this aircraft.


Prior to Air Chathams there was a lot of wastage. They would catch the crays, take them to the factory and only keep the tail meat, freeze it and ship it out, and all the rest would be thrown away. But flying it out as a live product meant it was live all the way to the mainland and then it would find its way to Asia and other markets.

That meant that the value of the product was making its way back to the island and grew the overall prosperity of the island.


I think that’s really where the culture of our business came from. It’s a family business, so we do things in a less corporate manner. We’re more aligned to family, community and essential services.

Chathams is where our heart is and we’ll always be Air Chathams but over the years we’ve also looked at other regions that need a service - they have either lost a service or they’ve not had one previously.


Air New Zealand made some big decisions between 2015 - 2018 which affected a lot of the small regional airports including Kāpiti, and this is where - as a smaller airline - we were able to step in and provide what we think is a really good service between Kāpiti and Auckland.


It’s a pretty tough industry and the margins are fine, but we are driven by the overarching obligation that we feel to connect communities. We think that as the nation grows and as our population grows, that the regional airports will become even more important than they are now.


There’s a lot of potential and we really want to be part of that - that’s what resonates with us. The Kāpiti Air Urban vision is about looking at how we make it all work together for the benefit of business and community.

Personally my journey has taken me all around New Zealand and the South Pacific, flying into some amazing places and living for about five years in Tonga operating a smaller airline over there under the Air Chathams umbrella.


It was actually when Tonga had a change of government and things became a bit unstable that we brought that arm of the business back to New Zealand and I started to become more involved in the business side of things rather than just flying.


Initially I started as a charter manager, drumming up business where I could. It was around that time that Air NZ made some major changes to regional airlines and they disbanded one of their offshoots which opened up some opportunities. Initially that was Auckland to Whakatāne. That was quite a different move for us because we had always been about offering essential services to remote communities, with a focus on cargo. But Whakatāne was more about passengers, regular services, and cargo if it was there.


It took us a few operational models before we found the right balance. After that we picked up Whanganui and went to the Saab 340 which is what we operate into Kāpiti now. That was a big step for us because we suddenly went from a small unknown airline to a regional airline.


When Air NZ pulled their services out of Kāpiti, there was almost no notice for anyone… about a month from memory. But by that stage we had a good working relationship with Air NZ so we were able to work together to pick up the route and we took it on, albeit with a service gap of about three months.


What we see in our passengers to and from Kāpiti is that it’s not just business traffic, but all kinds of travellers. Tourists, families, friends. Our airline has always been about providing essential air services into isolated communities.


Kāpiti is probably the largest and most up to date of the places we operate into, and it does have that close connection to Wellington but the key thing that Kāpiti Air Urban is onto is that it’s not just an airport – it can be so many things. We’re totally on board with that and I think that’s where Air Chathams can fit in perfectly. We’re not a big corporate airline. We are a family of people that have started an airline and fly to places where we’re wanted. I think we’re wanted on the Kāpiti Coast and we’ll be there as long as that's the case."


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