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Kiwi Air founder 'not bitter' at Air NZ

By Graeme Kennedy

Friday 21st February 2003

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Ewan Wilson is no longer angry or bitter at Air New Zealand or the predatory pricing tactics which put his Kiwi Air our of business ­ instead, he wishes the national carrier well in its new alliance with Qantas.

"I certainly don't want to see Air New Zealand collapse," Mr Wilson said. "Right now, it makes good sense to join hands and do an equity deal.

"It is inherently anti-competitive and the government must do something about that and if they can we have nothing to worry about them working together ­ the reality is that they could be anti-competitive to a new carrier whether or not they have an equity deal.

"I was angry at the time Kiwi was forced into liquidation, especially when Air New Zealand said it was because I didn't have the management strength or style.

"I had started an airline in 1994, posted a $1.1 million pre-tax profit in 1995-96, lost $3 million in the same year and was banned as a director for five years ­ which expires next month.

"Yet within those five years Air New Zealand management had taken a profitable carrier to its knees, lost $1 billion, moaned about anti-competitive behaviour by Qantas, the government had to bail them out and the retiring management got golden handshakes."

Disillusioned, he left New Zealand and returned in 2001 after a self-imposed two-year exile in Australia where he flew as co-pilot in a DC-4 freighter and began a masters degree in aviation management at Griffith University

Mr Wilson lectures on the subject at Otago and Waikato Universities and last year successfully stood for the Hamilton City Council, Health Board and WEL Energy Trust. It is also no secret that he will challenge for the city's mayoralty next year.

"During the Kiwi days I came across some very good politicians, but also some who were very bad," he said. "Perhaps naively I thought I could make a difference and I think I have done that in a city I really love and which had given such strong parochial support to Kiwi."

Mr Wilson moved to Montreal with the Canadian woman he met during his European OE and, married, began commercial flying training and opened the Voyage Kiwi Internationale travel agency, still run profitably by his brother-in-law.

The family returned to Hamilton where Mr Wilson began Kiwi Travel ­ the catalyst for Kiwi Air and its two-jet services from the provinces to Australia at fares $200 below high-season rates.

"I had no desire to go against Air New Zealand and Qantas head-to-head," he said. "They were a powerful duopoly and Air New Zealand waited a year before the gloves came off ­ they had their solution to remove Kiwi in a cupboard collecting dust.

"Their special projects manager Ray Webb ­ a very highly regarded and clever man who is now COO with easyJet ­ had in 1990 prepared a plan for an Air New Zealand low-cost carrier to enter the Australian market it they couldn't buy Ansett and with it Freedom was launched overnight in 1995.

"We were an infection to Air New Zealand ­ pussy and a bit unpleasant ­ and Freedom was their antibiotic.

"We had the dominant market share when Freedom launched its Aussie on a Plate campaign with a $199 return fare plus $9 for tickets to Miss Saigon ­ it should have been Ewan Wilson's head on a plate."

Mr Wilson enrolled at university after the Kiwi collapse to study law and how it worked in business, feeling he had been "unfairly tripped up."

But with money running out he was arrested and charged with misuse of a document for pecuniary advantage relating to his application for an International Air Services License. He said he was found guilty on several technical points and did three months' periodic detention.

"Once I had done that I needed a break from New Zealand," he said.

"I found an old DC-4 owned by a New Zealand doctor at Archerfield Airport near Brisbane. He didn't know what to do with it so I approached him, told him I would like to fly it and he said I could have a co-pilot job if I could find some cargoes.

"We flew flood relief through Queensland, took mining equipment to New Plymouth, hauled fish to Honiara and took relief food supplies to Dili ­ it was a great time."

Mr Wilson has 1500 hours flight time, including 100 hours on four-engine aircraft and 500 in his latest passion, microlights, in his log book and is revelling in academic and local government life.

"I know more about aviation and its complexities than ever and have an unsatisfied desire to revisit it but right now I have never been so happy," he said.

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