10 September 2015

Farewell Air NZ 737s - the noisy revolutionaries

On the 6th of September, NZ557 from Christchurch to Auckland marked the end of Boeing 737 service for Air New Zealand.  This was barely mentioned by the press, but there is history behind Air NZ (and its predecessor NAC) flying Boeing 737s, because they truly revolutionised travel within the country in the 1960s and in just over 10 years or so they had seen off the end of the Wellington-Lyttelton overnight ferry, the Christchurch-Dunedin-Invercargill overnight train and one of the two Auckland-Wellington overnight train services - despite best efforts by politicians to prop the latter three up with subsidies.

Before aviation enthusiasts jump on me, yes, I know the Boeing 737-300s that have been flying the last decade and a half are not the ones that started flying in 1968.  These were the 3rd generation of the type NAC first flew on the "main trunk" Auckland-Wellington-Christchurch Dunedin", and yes there is now a 4th generation (which are the types flown by the likes of Qantas and Virgin Australia to NZ today), but the basic design retain a lot of commonality.  Besides, I like an excuse for a bit of history, and this one contains a political element that demonstrates, once again, how "democratic control" of a business can so easily sow the seeds of failure.

NAC was wholly owned by the Government and had virtually a statutory monopoly on domestic air services.  Other airlines did provide services, but they had to prove to the bureaucracy that there was demand for the service (heaven forbid a business start up service risking it might not have customers!) and prove it would not interfere with the services provided by existing operators.  So NAC had a legal veto over competition.  Nevertheless, it almost always operated profitably overall, although the reality was that the "main trunk" was gouging passengers and making high profits, whereas services to provincial airports like Kaitaia, Gisborne, Oamaru and Westport were unprofitable, but considered politically important (unlike today, with Air NZ which is profit focused across the network).   Still, NAC, as government businesses were at the time, was run by aviation professionals and as the jet age started in the 1950s, by the early 1960s it was becoming clear that the next revolution in air travel would be pure jet travel.  It gained Government permission to go to tender for jet aircraft to fly domestic services in 1965.

The three main manufacturers at the time, Boeing, Douglas and British Aircraft Corporation all were shortlisted.  Boeing with its, as yet unflown, 737. Douglas with the DC-9, and BAC with its BAC 1-11.  NAC's criteria for the aircraft to choose included speed of turnaround, fuel efficiency and ability to manoeuvre safely and reliably at Wellington Airport (which had a runway even shorter than it has today).  Herein comes the "democratic control" element.  The then Holyoake National Government wasn't impressed by the conclusion of NAC's analysis, that the Boeing 737 was the best aircraft for the job.  It was more interested in international trade diplomacy and winning the support of the British Government in securing favourable trade access when it would eventually enter the EEC.  It insisted that NAC "look again" at its business case, delaying approval for its capital investment in the 737.

NAC did, and once again made it clear that the 737 was the right plane for the job, and so it proved to be.  Over 8,600 Boeing 737s have been built (and are still being built), of the four generations of the original design (and a fifth generation is being developed).  The BAC 1-11? 244 and production ended in 1982, although Romania's Ceausescu regime was licensed by the Callaghan government to produce 22 it struggled to complete 9 by the time the vile regime was overthrown in 1989.  It was not the last attempt by a New Zealand Government to intervene commercially in the decisions of its airlines, but fortunately the airline won and so NAC was one the earliest operators of the Boeing 737 (Lufthansa was the first), the plane that (after some slow years) would be Boeing's biggest selling variant ever.

So what was the result? It cut travel time on the routes it serviced by nearly half, and it was 50% faster than the Vickers Viscounts it was replacing, so one Boeing 737 could fly around twice as many services a day with 50% more passengers, saving them a considerable amount of time, but also enabling airfares to be more affordable, particular for growing business traffic between the main centres.   As a result, the competing modes were increasingly hit hard.

Take the train, what else are you going to do?

Between Auckland and Wellington, driving was a long and by today's standards, much harder trip, with few passing lanes, many sharp bends in the road meant it could take a good 8-9 hours.

The preferred option was by overnight train, and at the time there were two such trains each way.  The Night Limited and the North Island Limited.  However, New Zealand Railways didn't exactly make a lot of effort to make those trips comfortable in the 1960s.   By the late 1960s steam was giving way to diesel, but NZR didn't bother putting electric heating in to replace the steam heating piped through from the locomotives.  It built steam heating cars which had boilers on board, to pipe steam through the cars.  The result was that all cars were equally heated.  If it got hot, you had to open the window with the resulting noise of railway crossings, train horns, tunnels.  There were three classes of travel. Sleeper cars had two bunks, so if you were travelling alone you'd have to share with a stranger. There was cold water sink in the cabin, but if you needed to go to the loo, you'd have to toddle down to the end of the car to the toilet.  About the only bit of luxury was that each car had a cabin attendant, who besides making up the linen and folding up and down the bunks, would offer a cup of tea or coffee in the morning as the train trundled through the environs of Auckland or Wellington.  What if you wanted to eat? Well, NZR got rid of dining cars during World War 1 as an economy measure, and never thought it was worthwhile to bring them back (after all, there was little competition for long journeys).  So the trains would stop at various stations on the way for refreshments, the classic "pie and a cuppa" with a slab of fruit cake.  Taihape, Taumarunui, Frankton Junction, Paekakariki, Palmerston North all had this role.  So, eating involved rushing into a random queue at a station to grab whatever was on offer and bring it on board, of course these stops added a good hour and a half to the total journey.

Quick get something to eat to break up your journey

Had work been willing to pay for the sleeper or you could afford it, at least you could guarantee some sleep.  However, only a few cars were sleepers, the rest were first class or second class.  First Class offered large leather recliners, a little like lazee-boy chairs, you could lay back at a 45 degree angle, and with 2-1 seating there was plenty of space.  Second Class, well think about old local bus bench seats, because that was exactly what they were like.  My Mum was on a train just like that after arriving from the UK on a ship at Wellington, and it wasn't a welcoming trip, especially when all of the catering (there wasn't even a shop) was only at stations (the sleeper tea or coffee wasn't available to the egalitarian masses).

Second Class on NZR long distance passenger services from the 1940s to the 1970s was basically this.  Cozy for 13 hours +

So you can hardly be surprised when business travellers and more and more leisure travellers said "bugger that" and didn't bother with the trains.  The same with the Christchurch-Dunedin-Invercargill overnight train, which of course conveniently arrived in Dunedin in the wee small hours from Christchurch, or left Dunedin near midnight in the other direction.

You can't accuse NZR of not responding to the competition, but you can accuse it of doing it too late. It's first response was to upgrade its daylight service between Wellington and Auckland to a faster railcar, the Blue Streak, in 1968 and then with new railcars in 1972, the SilverFern.  This offered air conditioning, light refreshments at your seat, but still stopped for lunch at Taihape at a sit down railway restaurant (for an extra price).  For leisure travellers it was definitely an improvement and proved to be a great success for some years (indeed it remains as the Northern Explorer, barely breaking even).  However, for business travellers it was a day lost.

In 1970, the South Island saw the arrival of the Southerner.  Old first class cars built in the 1930s and 40s, were spruced up with luxuries like carpet, electric heating and, lo and behold, a buffet car was introduced offering full meal service, and many intermediate stops were removed, so the service would approach being competitive with driving.  It was a success for some years, but only because the distances between the main centres were shorter than the North Island Main Trunk.  Yet it too would fall by the wayside because of economics.  Cars that weighed three times as much as a bus and carry 30% fewer passengers, buffet cars lost a fortune.  Ultimately, the Southerner ended in 2002 because a combination of widespread car ownership and low cost efficient shuttle bus services saw it seen as a slow, lumbering and expensive way to get around.

In 1970, it became possible to buy a meal on a train again.  The Southerner Buffet Car


Then in 1971 the ill-fated Silverstar came into service.  Too late, but not too little.  This brand new, air conditioned (the first in New Zealand), Japanese made overnight train ran between Auckland and Wellington. It was all sleeper, with double glazing and had a buffet car with full meal service, including alcohol.  Half the train was single birth sleepers, each with their own fold down toilet and hot and cold sink, the other half two birth sleeper with separate bathroom, including shower.  It was described by one international travel critic as the "third most luxurious train in the world" (after South Africa's Blue Train and Australia's Indian Pacific), and was a hit, for a short while.

A vain attempt by the Silverstar to target a demographic that was already flying
The problem was simple.  It didn't really matter how good a train it was, business travellers mostly preferred to hop on a jet at the end of the day and go home, or get up in the morning get on a jet and go to their meetings.  Spending a night on a train was always going to be less desirable than flying. In 1975, the second overnight Auckland-Wellington train was refurbished (again with cars from the 30s and 40s), called the Northerner, with all the seats now refurbished version of the old first class with a couple of old style sleepers, and a buffet car introduced.   The Northerner did gain around a third of its passengers from stopping at points along the route, but it still meant leaving at 7.30pm and arriving at 8.30am, and without a shower compared to the Silverstar.

None of this was going to be enough to woo people off of planes, so by 1979 the legacy overnight trains (on Friday and Sunday evenings only by now) between Christchurch and Invercargill were discontinued, and the Silverstar was withdrawn, the intention being that half of its sleepers be gutted and have seats installed, so the Northerner could be replaced with a relatively new, air conditioned single overnight train.  However, the discovery of blue asbestos as insulation saw the railway unions refuse to work on the train, and for around 10 years debate was had about whether it was worth it to pay the much higher cost to undertake the work.  Ultimately, the Silverstar cars were sold to a Malaysian company, which completely refurbished them and it now runs as the Eastern Oriental Express.

Farewell Lyttelton Ferry

As this was all happening, the seas saw the end of another service.  The Wellington-Lyttelton ferry had long been the standard service between Wellington and Christchurch, offering overnight cabins for passengers, and roll-on roll-off service for cars, between the cities.  It had already lost freight traffic with the arrival of the NZR Cook Strait Ferries between Wellington and Picton, particularly as the law at the time gave NZR a monopoly on almost all freight traffic consigned for distances over 40 miles, so much freight that had once gone by road on the Lyttelton ferry, was legally required to go by rail via the Picton ferries.

TEV Rangatira at Wellington

However, it was hit with two blows in 1968.  The first was the tragic sinking of the TEV Wahine on 10 April 1968, which not only shook confidence in the service, but saw its frequency half, as with only one ship (the aging TEV Maori), it was impossible to operate a nightly service in both directions.  With the arrival of Boeing 737 services on the route later that year, by 1972 the replacement ship - the TEV Rangatira - had already seen big drops in patronage.  As always, a range of accommodation had been available.  Single berth cabins would get well used, but four and eight berth cabins (which could be booked for individual travellers to share with strangers) were increasingly difficult to fill, as people weren't keen on sleeping with strangers.  With a large number of two berth cabins many prospective passengers either would have to pay for a whole cabin, or risk sharing with a stranger.  Of course backpacking was virtually unknown in those days.  Having a restaurant, cafeteria, cocktail bar and cinema weren't enough to make up

Instead of retaining both ships, the Rangatira replaced the TEV Maori, and maintained a service every second day, but was already losing money.  In 1974 the Union Steam Ship Company announced the service would be cancelled, as it was losing NZ$4m a year.  This wasn't helped by the militant Seafarer's Union demanding increased pay well above inflation, essentially pricing themselves out of jobs.  Both the Rowling and the Muldoon Government that succeeded it, subsidised its operation for the following two years, but it ceased in 1976 having averaged patronage of little more than 50% and vehicle numbers of around a third of capacity.   Although the removal of the railways' monopoly on long distance freight did see the revival of vehicle ferries for trucks on the route, it was never again to be for an overnight passenger trip.

Competition and cars

Of course, since then, NAC and Air New Zealand (then only an international airline) merged in 1978, the Muldoon Government deregulated the airline industry in 1983 and the Lange Government lowered in 1987 and eventually removed foreign investment restrictions on domestic airlines, resulting in Ansett New Zealand - flying secondhand Boeing 737s at first - providing competition for major domestic air services.  With that, fares dropped, and as subsequent governments allowed second hand car imports, and removed tariffs on imported new vehicle, intercity rail travel dropped. It became "normal" for people on average incomes to fly domestically, and car ownership increased, along with the quality and safety of the cars people owned.  In addition, in response to the number of major accident blackspots, spending on roads through the 70s to the 90s focused on fixing problem intersections, bends and other parts of the network which disproportionately saw lives being taken.  A simple measure, installing median barriers on all motorways, saved dozens of lives every year. Driving was becoming safer and cheaper, and flying was cheaper too.   Of course, the Northerner is gone too, as not even backpackers were willing in sufficient numbers to sit on an overnight train (the sleepers were withdrawn in 1987 following the Lange Government's decision to end subsidies). Eventually, the 737 had opponents, as the professional whinger Sue Kedgley, as Wellington City Councillor demanded the Council boycott Air New Zealand (it had been privatised by then), because its second generation 737s (which arrived in the 1980s to replace the original set) were noisier than the BAe 146 so-called "whisperjets" Ansett was flying in the 1990s.  This came to nothing, as "hush-kits" were put on the planes, and they were replaced by the 3rd generation 737-300s in the late 1990s, of course by then Kedgley had found a new "anti-technology, pro-tell people how to get around", cause to be a hypocrite about.

Although railway enthusiasts, including myself, may be saddened by the end of many rail services on nostalgia grounds, there is little doubt that those small jets transformed business travel and eventually leisure travel in the country.  A weekend away following a flight of no more than an hour and a half, is affordable and feasible.  Business meetings in different parts of the country entirely possible, with frequencies on the busiest Auckland-Wellington and Christchurch routes more than hourly at peaks. NAC took a chance on a very new design, and took on a government less interested in what was good for the business (and passenger), and more interested in how it looked diplomatically.  In the 1960s, thinking about having conferences that attract people from across the country, seemed fanciful and indeed business meetings at the "drop of a hat" were much rarer than today.

Yes, the same services are now continuing with the Airbus A320, a design originating from the 1980s, not the 1960s.  Yes, Boeing 737s will be in our skies for some years as foreign airlines use them for regular service, but few in 1967 would that thought the decision to order that stubby, then noisy twinjet, would change business, leisure and society so much.

So farewell to the Boeing 737, and thank you to the NAC executives who told Ministers where to stick their ultracrepidarian noses.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the article Scott. Perhaps could have added a political "footnote" about Cullen's lies in order to re-nationalise Air NZ, when Singapore Airlines were willing to have majority shares in it. Unsure what the outcome might have been.

Unknown said...

Very well said. I was one of those on board flight 557. This nation really should be preserving a ‘kiwi’ 737 as part of it’s heritage. It has perhaps even surpassed the DC-8 in the 47 years service. Here, unlike the impressive preservation of significant jetliners over in Oz (or many parts of the globe), we seem to have a quick and barely heralded farewell , then the aircraft type retired are sent to the boneyard, or second hand buyer, before eventually the boneyard, and forgotten.
The 737 has become an icon in our lands over the last near 5 decades, with many people making their first ever flight in a 737, and one of the most successful yet unsung transport success stories. All of NAC’s key aircraft have been preserved – except for it’s biggest player – the 737.
There are a few ex Air NZ series 200s still languishing on borrowed time and even by luck, the second delivered to NAC, ZK-NAD, (19930, the 66th 737 ever built). She sits in a corner of Maxton Laurinburg, Carolina USA, minus flaps, engines etc. What would it take with some sponsorship to purchase her at scrap price, get her shipped over get spare time expired parts, a couple of expired JT8D-7 engines from a boneyard and restore her to her original NAC livery?
And forget not that the significance of the purchase of those first 3 came exactly 50 years of our previous trade with Boeing, which was when the Walsh brother purchased Boeing numbers 1 and 2, a poignant link with the maker that was indeed remembered when ZK-NAC rolled out at Renton, a replica of the seaplane was brought along side for photos.
The sad derelict ‘NAD, restored and gleaming in her original plumes would be an instant gem of our heritage. I’ve batted for years to get interest in this being saved before it’s too late.
Another significant 737 is the longest serving in NZ, ZK-NQC, (22994) the combi quick change aircraft that continued to fly the fast post after Air NZ days until 2011 – 29 years service. Now out of airframe hours in Canada.
Retired jetliners have became popular for themed pubs, bars and restaurants among other non flying uses, which pay for acquiring it. Imagine for example a 737-200 preserved and done as a restaurant a new attractive landmark in one of the sad looking vacant lots in downtown Christchurch, quake proof and heritage preserved, so it ticks a few boxes in one go.
Could Air NZ be persuaded to be a bit less ‘crazy about rugby’ and a bit more crazy about their own heritage, which is surely not so crazy. Look at what Qantas does, for a good example.
A final happy note, one ex Air NZ 737-200 is now in a museum, the SAA museum took ex ZK-NAV a year ago. They are another example keeping up with the times in terms of aircraft preservation. http://www.saamuseum.co.za/our-aircraft/102.html

Rick said...

Thank you kindly