Stewart Island Flights is a small airline based in Invercargill on New Zealand’s South Island. Specialising in commercial and charter flights to Stewart Island, the airline has a fleet of just four light aircraft.
I recently flew with Stewart Island Flights from Oban, the main town centre on Stewart Island, to Invercargill. Normally in a flight review, I would rate an airline based on the airport experience, hard product and soft product. But this isn’t your ordinary airline, so it doesn’t really make sense to write this review using a standard formula. Instead, here’s a story about my experience and what makes Steward Island Flights unique.
Although the trans-Tasman travel bubble is currently paused, perhaps this review might give you some travel inspiration when New Zealand reopens its border to Australians.
About Stewart Island
In case you’re unfamiliar, Stewart Island (or Rakiura in the local Māori language) is New Zealand’s third-largest island. It’s located below the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island.
This trip was my first visit to Stewart Island, and I was extremely impressed. In some ways, it reminded me of Lord Howe Island in a very positive way – except that it’s also easier to reach and more affordable.
Around 400 friendly locals live on Stewart Island, mostly in the town of Oban where you’ll find a pub, supermarket, fish & chip van, museum and various boutique shops & tour operators. The island is famous for its natural beauty with pristine beaches, national parks and tons of native wildlife. It’s also a dark sky sanctuary, making it ideal for stargazing (and if the conditions are right, viewing the Southern Lights).
There are two main ways to get to Stewart Island. The first option is to take a ferry across the Foveaux Strait from Bluff to Oban. The 40km trip takes around an hour and costs NZD85 (~AU$81) one-way. It costs an extra NZD28 (~AU$27) for a connecting bus service to Bluff from Invercargill, where you’ll find the region’s main airport.
The other option is to fly from Invercargill to Oban with Stewart Island Flights. The flight only takes 20 minutes and costs NZD130 (~AU$124) one-way or NZD225 (~AU$214) for a return trip. This includes a 15kg checked baggage allowance.
I caught the ferry to the island, and was happy to be flying back because I found the boat ride across the Foveaux Strait uncomfortably rough. By comparison, the flight couldn’t have been smoother.
As it happens, if you’re booking a return trip from Invercargill, the flight to Stewart Island is no more expensive than the ferry!
The ground experience on Stewart Island
Flights from Stewart Island depart from Ryan’s Creek Aerodrome, which is a 5-minute drive from Oban. However, Stewart Island Flights passengers are advised to check-in around 40 minutes prior to departure at the Stewart Island Flights Depot (which is also the local post office) right in the centre of town. In fact, passengers are specifically instructed not to drive or walk to the airport as there are no actual facilities there.
I was booked to travel with Stewart Island Flights on a Sunday morning from Oban to Invercargill on flight WK152 at 9.30am. The flight was due to arrive at Invercargill Airport at 9.50am, and three hours later I was separately booked on an onward flight out of Invercargill with Air New Zealand.
Unfortunately, things didn’t quite go to plan. Although it was a picturesque morning on Stewart Island, our flight was delayed because it was foggy in Invercargill. The airline staff weren’t sure when the fog would clear, but said they would call me as soon as they had an update. In the meantime, the staff suggested that we all walk over to the pub and have a leisurely breakfast.
This was probably one of the most pleasant flight delays I’ve ever had! While waiting, I enjoyed a delicious hot breakfast (admittedly, I did have to pay for this) with a great view of the sunrise over Halfmoon Bay. But as the hours passed by, I was getting increasingly nervous about my connection in Invercargill.
Eventually the fog in Invercargill lifted and we were called back to the depot shortly before midday. With the inbound flight now on its way, the nine passengers on today’s fully-booked flight were loaded into a minivan and driven to the airstrip, which is basically just an extension of the road coming from town.
While we waited for the inbound flight to land, the minivan parked short of the runway and our driver radioed the pilot to give an update of the current wind conditions at the airport.
We were then driven over to the plane once it landed. The passengers getting off the inbound flight got into the van to be driven back into town, and vice versa.
The plane for our short flight to Invercargill was a Britten-Norman BN-2A-26 Islander. This light aircraft has room for the pilot and nine passengers – one who sits directly beside the pilot, and then four rows with two seats per row.
It’s a small plane and fitting everyone in was a bit of a squeeze. But for a flight time of 20 minutes, it was perfectly fine!
Clearly, there was no in-flight entertainment, wifi or catering provided. There is also no toilet on board. But the aircraft does have a pretty cool feature that most commercial airliners don’t have – it can land on the beach!
With a cruising altitude of just 1,500 feet (around 460m above sea level), we enjoyed some spectacular views of Stewart Island, the Foveaux Strait, Bluff and then finally Invercargill as we approached the destination airport.
The aircraft was a bit noisy, but the flight was smooth and enjoyable.
After landing in Invercargill, we waited for the pilot to open the doors and then for him to hand us our checked luggage from the back of the plane. This took all of two minutes.
Unfortunately, by this time I had missed the check-in cut-off for my Air New Zealand flight. To make a long story short: I was rebooked on the following day’s Air New Zealand flight, but this was later cancelled due to poor weather in Invercargill the following day – as was the next flight I was rebooked onto – meaning I ended up spending two unplanned nights in Invercargill!
I don’t hold Stewart Island Flights responsible for this delay in any way – the weather is clearly not their fault, and fortunately travel insurance covered the two nights of accommodation in Invercargill.
So, would I fly with Stewart Island Flights again? Absolutely! It was a fun experience, the staff were great and it was a lot more comfortable than taking the ferry to Stewart Island. But next time, I will factor in more time for delays – especially in winter!
Recommended by the Australian Frequent Flyer
Be the Frequent Flyer Expert! Subscribe below to The Frequent Flyer Gazette to receive free updates in your inbox every Monday & Thursday morning.