Kirkhope Aviation began as a hobby in the mid-70s. After receiving their pilot licenses, Tony Kirkhope and Keith Siler started flying throughout the Australian outback. Originating in a Wollongong, the business moved to Essendon and now operates out of Moorabbin Airport in Melbourne. Over the last 35 years, the company has grown from a single engine Piper Cherokee 6, to a Beechcraft Super King Air, Piper Chieftain and a Piper Navajo, all twin engine aircrafts fully owned by Kirkhope Aviation. They also operate other non-owned aircrafts. We gathered insights from Keith Siler, pilot and Operations Manager as well as Tony Kirkhope, pilot and owner of the company.
“Our hobby became a commercial business”, says Tony. “It turned into a full time business in the last 10 years, after Keith and I retired from other employment.” He adds. Keith Siler was an engineer at Telstra and Tony’s previous work included both engineering and then a shoemaking business.
“Initially we concentrated on outback air tours originating from Melbourne and at the time, there were only a couple of competitors in Victoria and NSW. Doing this for the last 35 years, we have as much if not more experience in these sort of tours than any of our competitors. Some of our competitors have moved on to larger aircrafts but we have stayed focused on smaller 8-10 seater small group tours” advises Tony.
The company is heavily involved within their community. They are a major supporter of the Moorabbin Open Day, where senior secondary school students visit the airport as part of an eye opener in aviation and the aviation precinct. “We were involved along with other aviation operators and also including the state based minister of aviation as well as the flight training school that the kids go through” mentions Keith. Kirkhope represented the charter and air touring community.
“Another involvement is, we host a number of rotary nights were Rotarians can come out for drinks and hor d’oeuvres and listen tall stories of our adventures over the last 35 years.” explains Tony. These interesting events also provide the opportunity for a look at Kirkhope’s aircraft and meet potential clients. “We also support local businesses and organisations by giving away flights as prizes at their events. These events are held by local companies and organisations such as DFO, Kingston Council as well as the Bayside and Frankston Business Networks.” adds Keith.
“There are two sides of the business, air tours throughout Australia and private or corporate charter. The prime role of the business is air tours, but we have also been promoting the charter side of the business.” explains Tony. Chartering a flight has clear advantages over other means of travel, such as being much more efficient and hassle free.
“We use versatile twin engine aircrafts with different capabilities that are all highly maintained. Our aircrafts were built predominately in the 1980s, but have been extensively renovated on the inside and out.” states Tony. The renovations include utilizing the latest avionics technology. “All three aircraft are fitted with new instrument panels, plus the latest avionics including navigation systems and traffic collision avoidance. Apart from making it easier for the pilot, it has added another layer of safety. Most of the basic technology you see in the latest airliners, we actually have onboard our aircraft.” advises Keith. “For instance, we can detect other aircraft, including their location and altitude. Over 40 years ago when Tony and I started flying, none of that technology existed and the advantage is that we’ve really gone up the safety scale.” He adds.
“We have a two prong vision, which is excellent service and excellent safety. We don’t take safety as a given, we work at it behind the scenes. We are in a highly competitive environment, so our answer to that is having great aircraft that are very well presented. We have been told that our aircraft are the best in their class in this part of the country. The second part, is offering great service to our clients. We don’t win our business on being the cheapest, but we try to win our business on these factors.” explains Keith.
Keith recently spent 3 days on a marketing tour to King Island along with various other organisations looking to improve tourism to the island, which will have two world class golf courses opening soon. In September Tony spent 3 days in Sydney, talking to a range of operators and inbound travel agents about opportunities, promotions and building relationships to support their growth in travel. “Being in this industry for 35 years, it’s essential to have good relationships as you couldn’t survive without them. One of the opportunities we saw as a reason to move Moorabbin 10 years ago, was the ability to service the South Eastern Sector of the Melbourne suburban sprawl.” sates Keith. This provides clients with the opportunity of travel from an airport much closer to home than Tullamarine.
“My personal belief is that a rising tide floats all boats. We are only part of a number of cogs in the tourism wheel. To make it really good and enjoyable and to have repeat clients, all those cogs have to turn in unison.” explains Keith. “We also have long term relationships with a combination of tour providers, as they help our business and we help theirs.” adds Tony. “We also have long term commitments with our maintenance suppliers. We’ve had a 15 year relationship with our engineering team, Blue Demon, and with our flight avionics supplier, both based in Moorabbin. We don’t shop around. We’ve built relationships with them amongst many others and we stick with them.” advises Tony.
As expected with the aviation industry, there are some challenges and major concerns that Keith and Tony discussed with us. “The bureaucratic and high level of regulation by CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority) is significantly hampering our development. Unrealistic restrictions and significant paperwork as well as the inflexibility of certain operations are a common concern that is shared across the industry.” states Keith. “It’s easier to change things when you’re inside the ring then outside. We have spent considerable time, trying to work with the government, who have identified that there’s an issue with aviation regulation. The Government has invested significant time and resources in the production of the Forsyth Report and have recently given new directions to CASA. There has also been a new MD and Chairman, so hopefully changes will start happening.” says Keith. “Probably, the industry’s take as of today, is that the changes are not broad enough and not happening quickly enough. Maybe in 12 months’ time it will be different, but the bureaucracy has worn people down over the last decade and the industry is looking for change. There is no shortage of public comment from all of the related industry associations, who are all saying the same thing.” advises Keith.
“In regards to growth, it has been particularly difficult over the last couple of years, due to the high level regulations compliance as well as the general economy. When the dollar is high, people think about going overseas. They will certainly spend more money within Australia when it’s on the lower side of the scale.” Keith adds. “This has made the touring side of the aviation industry very tough. Employment opportunities have been few and far between recently, however we hope this will change.” states Tony.