Airnorth: The Australian Airline That Defied The Odds

Besides that crucial space in the spelling, what’s the difference between Airnorth and Air North? Airnorth is an Australian airline based out of Darwin. Air North is a Canadian airline running out of Whitehorse. Airnorth is not a particularly well-known airline, much less so than its Canadian counterpart. But it is a significant carrier out of Darwin and has been flying for over 40 years. Airnorth is an interesting airline that has made an art form out of owning a niche in the aviation world, sticking to what it does well, and surviving.

Despite a rough couple of years, Darwin’s Airnorth is flying onwards and upwards. Photo: Airnorth

The Darwin-based airline carves out a distinctive niche for itself

With a fleet of Embraer ERJ-170 jets and E120 turboprops, Airnorth usually whizzes around Australia’s Northern Territory. The planes link remote towns in the Territory to the capital Darwin. Its Territory flights include an old-style milk run down to Alice Springs, stopping at Tennant Creek and Katherine along the way. Airnorth also offers the only direct link between Australia and East Timor.

Airnorth is also carving out a bit of a niche for itself by offering direct jet services on some long skinny routes the big players avoid. While many of these routes are temporarily not running, passengers were starting to see more and more Airnorth Embraers in Melbourne, Toowoomba, and Townsville.

But the Northern Territory remains Airnorth’s home ground. Thirty years ago, Ansett and TAA/Australian Airlines offered decent coverage of this region. But except for Darwin and Alice Springs, the bigger local airlines have long left the Northern Territory. Airnorth has prospered by stepping into the vacuum. It now flies around 300,000 passengers a year.

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Toowomba’s Wellcamp Airport is one of the destinations served by Airnorth. Photo: Wellcamp Airport

Parent company Bristow Group dices with bankruptcy in 2019

Over the years, Airnorth grew. It upgraded from its early Beechcraft Super King Air and Douglas DC-3 to the newer, sleeker Embraers.

In 2015, Bristow Helicopters Australia Ltd bought Airnorth. Houston-based Bristow Group owns Bristow Helicopters Australia Ltd. Its website describes it as the “world’s leading industrial aviation solutions provider.” Unfortunately, in May 2019, Bristow Group went into Chapter 11 administration. Right away, there was a cloud over the future of Airnorth.

Neither Bristow nor Airnorth appreciated the speculation. At the time, Bristow said it was committed to the future of Airnorth.

“Airnorth is more than just a business; we are a crucial part of the social and economic fabric of the Northern Territory,” the company said in a statement last year.

Happily, Bristow did come out of Chapter 11 and stuck with Airnorth. By the end of 2019, prospective buyers of Airnorth had scurried back home, and the airline was announcing new routes and big plans for 2020.

Airnorth pilots stepping off one of the airline’s turboprop planes. Photo: Airnorth

2020 presents fresh challenges for Airnorth

But 2020 didn’t pan out as planned for anyone, including Airnorth. Though the airline suspended some services, notably the longer routes in and out of interstate destinations like Melbourne, the Gold Coast, and down the West Coast, it maintained services throughout the Northern Territory. That was largely thanks to the Northern Territory Government and later the Australian Government. Both stepped up with funding to keep essential services flying.

“We are incredibly grateful for the Commonwealth Government’s support. For many remote communities, air services are fundamentally the only all-year-round reliable method of transportation for people, vital goods, essential services, and freight up here in Northern Australia,” said Airnorth CEO Daniel Bowden in a statement.

Airnorth has dodged a few bullets in the last couple of years. Like most airlines, it is dealing with the current situation the best it can. But as the Airnorth example shows, airlines that stick to their core business over the long run and carve out a distinctive niche for themselves, rather than just being another imitator, are in a good position to survive the worst the world can throw at it.