As demand for air-travel expanded throughout Australia during the 1960s and 70s, so too did new start-up airlines, especially in regional airline services. Some airlines survived, many did not. One of the most successful regional carriers was Kendell Airlines. How it prospered and developed is due in no small way to the vision, drive, integrity and business acumen of its founder, Don Kendell.
Raised on the family farm near Lockhart, New South Wales, Don Kendell was born in Geelong, Victoria in 1930. Even at a young age he was fascinated with flight and recalled at the age of seven, running through a paddock of saffron thistles to watch a bi-plane take off. While flying was an ambition, reality was farming and after finishing school at Geelong College, Kendell returned to work the family farm.
At 19 Kendell enrolled in flying lessons in Wagga Wagga and shortly thereafter obtained his Private and Commercial licences. At 22, he joined the Wagga Flight of the RAAF 22 City of Sydney Squadron.
Following a year’s trip around Australia in 1954 trying to find work as a pilot, Kendell left for England and joined British European Airways flying DC3’s and later Viscounts. He met Eilish Burke, a special lady from Ireland and they married in 1956. Future opportunities with BEA were limited and in 1959 the Kendell family moved back to Australia to resume rural life at Lockhart and look for opportunities. After a hiatus of four years, Kendell established Premiair Aviation in 1965 in Wagga Wagga. The seed for a great success story was sown.
At this time Australia’s domestic airline industry was heavily regulated under the “Two Airline Policy” favouring TAA and the private airline, Ansett. Generally, the regional services of the major airlines were loss making, operated inefficient large turbo-prop aircraft and provided poor service in terms of schedule times and frequency. Fares were high.
Kendell knew there was a place for smaller aircraft operating greater schedule frequency, especially services providing day return flights from the country to the city and vice versa. In 1971, Kendell convinced Ansett he could do a far better service between Melbourne and Wagga Wagga and on 18 October that year, Eilish’s birthday, Kendell Airlines commenced its first scheduled service operating a seven seat Piper Navajo. This was to set a long precedent in Kendell Airlines’ development.
In the following years Kendell Airlines added new routes and Riley Heron aircraft. With the oil crisis at its height, a move to turbine powered aircraft was made in 1979 with the introduction of the first Fairchild Metroliner II – a sixteen seat aircraft. This was a step up in technology and commitment.
The Metro was a great success and enabled the airline over the next six years to enter other routes linking Melbourne with regional centres in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and King Island in Bass Strait. By 1986 Kendell Airlines operated eight Metros.
Another major step in 1985 saw the airline take delivery of a new Saab 340 – the first of its kind to be operated in the southern hemisphere. It was an instant success and quickly enabled Kendell Airlines to expand. Indeed, in 1986, Kendell Airlines took over the network of Airlines of South Australia virtually doubling the airline overnight.
During the subsequent one and a half decades, Kendell Airlines grew consistently taking over routes vacated by Ansett including Bass Strait services, regional New South Wales services and the Sydney – Canberra “Capital Shuttle”. At this point, Kendell Airlines was the largest regional in Australia serving 19 centres from Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney carrying over one million passengers annually on 1,000 flights per week with 23 aircraft.
Kendell Airlines’ success did not go unnoticed. In 1990 it received the inaugural Airways Award for Excellence and in 1991 Regional Airline of the Year by Air Transport World, the first airline in Australia to receive such a top award. Personally, Don Kendell was one of the founders of the Regional Airlines Association of Australia and was invited to sit on various government advisory bodies. In 1992 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his services to regional aviation.
Although having sold to Ansett earlier, as Managing Director, Don Kendell remained firmly in charge of the airline until his retirement in June 1997. However, he was never far from the airline he founded and continued as Non-Executive Chairman until shortly before his passing.
In the late 1990’s, Kendell Airlines was selected to replace Ansett jet services on thinner routes across eastern Australia with Bombardier CRJ regional jets. The first service commenced in December 1999 with the fleet building to ten CRJ aircraft over the next two years.
Sadly the airline Kendell founded passed into Administration on 13 September 2001 when the Ansett Group collapsed. Despite offerings, even Don Kendell could not prevent the train wreck the Ansett owners and management had initiated. By this stage he was very ill with cancer and passed away on 14 October 2001 just a few days short of the 30 year anniversary of the first Kendell Airlines regional airline service.
Today Don Kendell would be proud to know Kendell Airlines has lived on, successfully passing through Administration to become part of Regional Express. Many of his loyal staff continue the legacy he commenced.