After Samoa fully reopened its borders on August 1, another Pacific country has been cautiously moving forward after two years of border closures and little or no international tourism.
However, given the many challenges facing Pacific aviation, opening it up isn’t as easy as flipping a switch. Soaring fuel costs, mounting debt, management problems and a shortage of pilots have plagued the industry in the region.
Climate change adds to these problems. Aside from tourism, small island nations with very small economies spread across a vast expanse of ocean depend on high-carbon air travel for health, trade and family relationships.
Today, most national airlines in the Pacific are kept afloat by government loans and guarantees – and in Fiji’s case, by workers’ pension funds. As the Pacific Forum business ministers meet in Vanuatu starting today, all of these issues should be high on the agenda.
Connecting the “blue continent”.
Unfortunately, difficult talks on national airline management were largely absent from the earlier meeting of Pacific Forum leaders in Fiji in July.
This was despite the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent “to protect and secure our people, places and prospects in the Pacific” set out at the meeting. And it would have been disappointing for ordinary taxpayers, who have often supported their loss-making national airlines.
For example, in 2021, the Samoan government clipped Samoan Airways’ wings over concerns about its continued profitability. The role of an airline in maintaining national image and pride is still raised in debates surrounding the nation’s near-bankruptcy in the early 1990s.
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Now, as international borders are reopening, Samoa Airways has announced it will no longer operate long-haul flights to Brisbane, Sydney and Auckland – traditionally the main sources of passengers and cargo.
That could dampen hopes for a speedy resumption of tourism, an industry from which Samoa generates around 25% of its GDP.
After Samoa ended leases on some of its planes, its close neighbor Vanuatu is reportedly considering taking over one of those planes as part of its own tourism development plans.
Kiribati has also invested in its fleet, acquiring two aircraft as part of an apparent growth strategy for international tourism. Ironically, however, Kiribati withdrew from the recent Pacific Forum meeting, joining Micronesian countries that have also left the organization.
Turbulence for Fiji Airways
Meanwhile, the region’s largest airline, Fiji Airways (formerly Air Pacific), is embroiled in controversy over changes to its ownership structure that surprised many in mid-July.
In particular, the takeover of a large stake in the airline by the Fiji National Provident Fund has been criticized by opposition MPs and union leaders for exposing pension fund members to a troubled company.
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In 2020, the airline laid off a large number of employees to deal with the fallout from the pandemic. And there have been calls for greater transparency in its operations. In 2021, Fiji’s former Prime Minister Mahendra Chaudhry described the airline as a “noose around taxpayers’ necks” after it took out a FJD130 million loan from the Asian Development Bank.
In an unprecedented move, Fiji Airways has now also taken over the management of Fiji Airports, a move that the Association of South Pacific Airlines (ASPA) has described as “very unusual” and a potential conflict of interest.
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A sense of urgency’
None of these systemic problems are entirely new. While cooperation has brought benefits to Pacific nations in the past, tensions between regionalism and nationalism have also hampered a coherent aviation strategy.
However, in July, Pacific Aviation Ministers endorsed a new aviation strategy aimed at ensuring “a safe and sustainable aviation system” for the region. It is hoped that this initiative will work despite the region’s many competing priorities, political uncertainties and shifting allegiances.
But the current political disagreements over Micronesia’s place within the larger Pacific family suggest these challenges will remain for some time.
The Pacific Forum business ministers, meeting in Vanuatu today and tomorrow, have already said that “the sense of urgency is very real.” Their discussions of “resilient economic recovery and stability” should include the role of regional aviation in achieving these goals.
Any realistic blue Pacific continent strategy must incorporate the good governance, collaboration and profitability of sustainable airlines so that they can connect nations across these vast expanses of ocean for generations to come.