By the mid-1930s, with scheduled air services well established in many other countries and long-distance international flights becoming more commonplace, New Zealand was ready for commercial aviation. Plans for a main trunk (Auckland–Dunedin) service had long existed on paper. What the fledgling aviation companies most needed was money.
In 1934 F. Maurice Clarke, who had already unsuccessfully attempted a service between Christchurch and Dunedin, approached Norris Falla, the managing director of the Union Steam Ship Company of New Zealand, seeking financial support for a new company called National Airways. Receiving an enthusiastic response from Falla, Clarke gave him a detailed plan for the development of a service bridging the two islands.
Trains, but not planes
Incredibly, when the first air trunk service was planned, Auckland was left out. Aviation promoter F. Maurice Clarke commented, ‘As regards Auckland as a terminus; it has usually been agreed in Aviation circles, that, as the City and Province is so well served by express trains to the South, it would be very doubtful if any air service could operate successfully against such an established and convenient service’. 1
An air network
The next year, 1935, became a key date in the development of commercial aviation in New Zealand. National Airways of New Zealand, renamed Union Airways, was granted a licence to develop services between Palmerston North and Dunedin, via Blenheim and Christchurch. A rival applicant, Great Pacific Airways, was also licensed to fly routes, partly in competition with Union Airways, linking Auckland, New Plymouth, Whanganui, Wellington, Blenheim, Christchurch, Timaru and Dunedin.
In addition, licences were granted to three regional airlines, in all of which the Union Steam Ship Company had a major interest:
- Cook Strait Airways (Wellington–Nelson–Blenheim)
- Air Travel (NZ) Ltd (the West Coast)
- East Coast Airways (Gisborne–Napier, with links to the main trunk route between Auckland and Dunedin).
The considerable resources of the Union Steam Ship Company thus underwrote the country’s first commercial aviation network.
When Great Pacific Airways failed to begin operations, Union Airways extended its services to Auckland. The licensed monopoly of a single airline on the main trunk remained a distinctive feature of New Zealand’s domestic air transport until the 1980s. Before the Second World War impeded air travel, passenger numbers on the licensed airlines were growing rapidly, the Cook Strait services being especially popular.
Between 1940 and 1944 however, passenger numbers slumped, when civil flying was much reduced. In 1945 only nine aircraft, capable of seating about 68 passengers, were flying. This situation changed dramatically after the war.