If you look past the headline grabbing Qantas, Jetstar, and Virgin Australia, there’s a whole strata of airline activity in Australia that routinely gets overlooked – regional airlines.
FlyPelican is one such airline.
Travellers passing through Sydney’s busy T2 may have seen may have seen FlyPelican’s signage at the check in counters or the regional commuter lounge gates. But do you know much about them?
The people behind FlyPelican are ex AeroPelican employees. AeroPelican was a small commuter airline which ran Twin Otters between Newcastle’s Belmont Airport and Sydney. AeroPelican was closely aligned with Ansett
The current CEO and FlyPelican director, Paul Graham, entered the aviation industry back in 1988 as an aircraft engineering apprentice. He started with AeroPelican in 1994, working in engineering. Another key player is Marty Hawley, also ex AeroPelican engineering and now a director and owner at FlyPelican The third wheel in the current FlyPelican management triumverate is Emil McCabe. He is also ex AeroPelican, having flown their Jetstream 32’s.
Following the collapse of Ansett in 2001, AeroPelican survived. It moved away from its Newcastle to Sydney iconic Twin Otter services to flying Jetstream 32s and Fairchild Metros around northern New South Wales. In 2004, the airline shifted its base from Belmont Airport up to Williamtown Airport, just north of Newcastle.
AeroPelican changed hands in 2002 and later in 2008. It diversified and did reasonably well. In 2010, the airline brought into and merged with Canberra based Brindabella Airlines. In 2013 there was a move to rebrand all of AeroPelican’s fleet as Brindabella but later that same year, maintenance and inspection issues saw CASA ground several of Brindabella’s aircraft grounded. The airline cancelled its regular passenger transport flights and went into receivership.
There ends AeroPelican. But it was one airline’s demise that lead to the creation of another.
According to Paul Graham, in the wake of Brindabella’s collapse, the lessors of the Jetstream 32s approached him to ask if there was anything he could do with the aircraft (there were four). He got together with a group of ex AeroPelican employees, including the current directors, and decided to apply for an Air Operator’s Certificate (AOC). CASA granted this in mid 2014 and they were back in business running air charters as FlyPelican.
It wasn’t necessarily an easy early run. The owner of the four Jetstreams was underwriting the new venture and could see that this new trajectory wasn’t going to end well. But by then FlyPelican had enough infrastructure and expertise to apply for a regular passenger transport AOC. Working with the local council in Mudgee, they re-introduced regular passenger transport services between Mudgee and Sydney in June 2015.
AeroPelican had previously flown this route. Then in the same month, FlyPelican kickstarted the Newcastle – Canberra route, vacant since Brindabella collapsed two years previously.
In the four years since, FlyPelican have mostly stuck to their core business – regional aviation from their Newcastle base. They’ve kept the same Jetstream 32 aircraft, only now they have 5 of them.
They fly Newcastle-Canberra-Newcastle up to four times a day on weekdays, Newcastle-Ballina-Newcastle daily, Mudgee-Sydney-Mudgee up to twice a day, Taree-Sydney-Taree also up to twice a day, Newcastle-Dubbo-Newcastle up to three times weekly and Newcastle-Taree-Newcastle once a week. It’s cautious and limited, but slow and steady helps avoid the missteps made by now defunct airlines like Brindabella and Williamtown based Impulse.
And flights have just commenced to Cobar, flying Sydney-Cobar-Sydney three times a week and Dubbo-Cobar-Dubbo twice a week.
But there was one near miss. There was a short lived foray into flying Newcastle-Adelaide-Newcastle three times a week using an Alliance Airlines Fokker jet. That lasted a year with FlyPelican pulling the plug in April 2019, saying they couldn’t make the route viable. It was the Impulse Airlines error – expanding from turboprop regional operations into more glamorous jet services. Sometimes it is best to stick to your knitting. At least FlyPelican got out of that route before it became fatal.
Oz Traveller is a big fan of small regional airlines like FlyPelican. They provide a vital service to people living outside the bigger cities and they operate in a very tough operating environment. You’ve got much less financial wriggle room operating a 19 seater Jetstream 32 than you do operating a 180 seat A320.
On days like this, where there isn’t much happening news wise (in fact, it has been a quiet few days), Oz Traveller will do more of these general background pieces.