Airnorth Operates Sophisticated Regional Jets in Some of the World’s Most Challenging Environments
June 18, 2015
In February 2015, Bristow Helicopters Australia acquired a majority stake in Airnorth, the largest regional airline operating across Northern Australia, to extend its Asia Pacific operations beyond rotary wing to include fixed wing, enhancing the company’s service to clients as an integrated aviation provider.
As Australia's second oldest airline operating Australia's youngest regional jet fleet, Airnorth commenced operations on July 4, 1978, coincidently in the first week of self-government for the Northern Territory of Australia.
In its early years, Airnorth operated a fleet of single and twin engine Cessna aircraft chartered throughout the Northern Territory, as well as internationally to Indonesia. In 1981, Airnorth purchased the Northern Territory's first turbine-engine aircraft, a Beechcraft Super King Air 200, introducing higher standards of comfort, speed and safety to air travel in the region.
The 1980s also saw Airnorth purchase its first airliner, a Douglas DC-3. Along with its existing charter flights, the airline expanded to offer Regular Public Transport (RPT) services across the Northern Territory and by the end of the decade had established itself as the major aircraft operator in Northern Australia, with a fleet of 44 aircraft.
Several major developments in the 1990s further cemented Airnorth's position as the leading aviation company in the Top End. This included the establishment of Capiteq Limited in 1993 (the company which continues to contain Airnorth's assets to this day) when the Skyport Group bought into the business; the introduction of transport category turbo-prop aircraft into its fleet including the Fairchild Metro 23 (in 1995) and Embraer 120 Brasilia (in 1997); and the introduction of Airnorth as the first commercial airline to operate services into East Timor after the country's independence in 1999.
Timor-Leste – The First Flight
On September 20, 1999, the first of the United Nations intervention force began arriving in Dili—Australians among them—but still the bullets continued to create havoc and unrest. Just eight days later, on September 28, Airnorth operated its first service flying between Darwin and Dili—a service that continues to this day.
"Discussions had been taking place with various pro-independence campaigners for two years in the lead-up to the election, so we were really in the box seat when the votes were counted," recalls Airnorth CEO Michael Bridge.
"It was perfect for us: just a 90-minute flight to Dili (now only an hour in the jet)—that's closer to Darwin than Tennant Creek. On that first flight, David Rickward and I crewed and we were carrying people from the United Nations World Food Programme. I remember it clearly—we taxied in, escorted by Black Hawk helicopters, and there were military personnel with machine guns scattered all over the place... Dili was on fire.
"We didn't stay long during that first flight—three or four hours at most—but we flew UN charters every day until January 17, 2000, at which time we decided to commence our own regular scheduled flights."
Over the past three and a half decades Airnorth has developed many long-term and successful partnerships with some of the world's largest and most respected mining and resource companies. It was Airnorth's partnership with McArthur River Mine (Xstrata Zinc) in 2006 that played an integral part in the introduction of the first 76-seat Embraer 170 Jet aircraft into Airnorth's fleet.
Airnorth's Chief Executive Officer Michael Bridge said, "The key to success was the collaborative approach to the contract. It was a win-win for both companies – it provided the passenger capacity needed by the mine at an efficient cost, while allowing Airnorth to leverage the contract for growth."
The new jet's impact on McArthur River Mine
"I was intent on a jet service because I knew it would be a big win for us as far as attracting workers went. We were competing with Tanami and a number of other operations flying workers out of Darwin, and all those guys really talk to each other.
There are a number of things that people compare when they work on fly-in, fly-out operations. One is the camp facilities and the food and recreation facilities, and the other is the type of air service that runs in and out of the mine and how comfortable they are on the flight. A jet is more comfortable and roomier than other aircraft, and it's a lot faster. We thought a jet would attract more people to work for McArthur River, and it's absolutely done that. Whether you fly into a mine on a silver pencil or on a jet makes a huge difference to whether you want to work there—you'll attract or lose people on that.
When the new jet started in 2007, it immediately lifted the morale of the people going in and out. Suddenly, we could leave an hour later and still arrive at the same time. Our employees had a big win out of that. They also felt safer during the wet season, seeing as the jet can go 10,000 feet above the previous aircraft we used and divert around some of the storms without too many issues. And our costs actually went down because the capacity increased so much in the people we could get on one aircraft."
- Brian Hearne, Former Chief Operating Officer of Xstrata Zinc (operator of McArthur River Mine)
"The introduction of the jet into our fleet in 2007 has transformed our business. Every market we have put that jet into has grown overnight and we now operate four E170 jets across our network," said Bridge.
Airnorth now operates the world's most sophisticated regional jet aircraft into some of the world's most challenging environments. With their hub in Darwin, Northern Territory, Australia Airnorth carry over 350,000 passengers annually; employ over 260 staff and directly contracts a similar number of staff across their network of ports. Airnorth operates more than 200 departures weekly to more than 20 destinations in three Australian states / territories and across four countries.
Airnorth entered another phase of growth when Bristow purchased a majority stake in the airline in 2015. "This purchase is not only great for Airnorth's staff but it is an exceptional outcome for our customers," Bridge said. "With Bristow's strong financial basis and world-wide footprint we feel as though the shackles have been removed and we can now look forward to our next stage of growth."