Pacific aviation struggles to take off after pandemic – how can the ‘Blue Continent’ stay connected?

With Samoa fully reopening its borders on August 1, another Pacific nation has tentatively moved forward after two years of border closures and little to no international tourism.

But opening up isn’t as simple as flicking a switch, given the many challenges Pacific aviation faces. Rising fuel prices, increasing debt, management problems and a pilot shortage have all plagued industry in the region.

Climate change adds to these problems. Tourism aside, small island nations with very small economies, spread over a vast expanse of ocean, depend on high carbon emitting air transport for health, commerce and family relations.

These days, most of the Pacific’s national airlines are kept afloat by government loans and guarantees – and in Fiji’s case, by workers’ pension funds. With the Pacific Forum Economic Ministers meeting in Vanuatu starting today, all of these issues should be on the agenda.

Connecting the “blue continent”

Unfortunately, difficult conversations about the management of national airlines were largely absent at the previous Pacific Forum leaders’ meeting in Fiji in July.

It was despite the
2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent “to protect and secure our people, our place and our prospects in the Pacific” stated at the meeting. And that would have been disappointing for ordinary taxpayers who often supported their deficits national carriers.

In 2021, for example, the Samoan government cut the wings of Samoan Airways due to concerns about its continued viability. The role of maintaining prestige and national pride in the form of an airline is still high in the debates over the country’s near bankruptcy in the early 1990s.

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Now, with the reopening of international borders, Samoa Airways has announced that it does not work anymore long-haul flights to Brisbane, Sydney and Auckland – traditionally its main sources of passengers and cargo.

This can dampen hopes a rapid recovery in tourism, an industry on which Samoa depends for around 25% of its GDP.

As Samoa terminates the leases of some of its aircraft, its close neighbor Vanuatu is would have consider taking one of these planes as part of its own tourism development plans.

Kiribati has also invested in its fleet, acquisition of two planes within the framework of apparent international tourism growth strategy. Ironically, however, Kiribati got out of the recent meeting of the Pacific Forum, joining Micronesian countries who also left the organization.

Turbulence for Fiji Airways

Meanwhile, the region’s largest carrier, Fiji Airways (formerly Air Pacific), is embroiled in controversy over changes in its ownership structure which caught many off guard in mid-July.

In particular, the Fiji National Provident Fund’s acquisition of a large stake in the airline has been criticized by opposition MPs and union leaders for exposing pension fund members to a company in difficulty.

Read more: Pacific tourism desperately needs a vaccine and travel freedoms, but industry must learn from this crisis

In 2020, the airline laid off a large number of employees as he was coping with the fallout of the pandemic. And there have been calls for greater transparency in its operations. In 2021, the former Prime Minister of Fiji, Mahendra Chaudhry called the airline a “rope around the taxpayers’ neck” after taking out a FJD$130 million loan from the Asian Development Bank.

In an unprecedented move, Fiji Airways has now also took over the management of Airports Fiji, an initiative of the Association of South Pacific Airlines (ASPA) describe as “very unusual” and a potential conflict of interest.

Read more: Pacific islands are back on the map and climate action is non-negotiable for potential allies

A sense of urgency

None of these systemic issues are entirely new. While cooperation has always brought benefits to Pacific countries, tension between regionalism and nationalism also hindered a coherent aviation strategy.

In July, however, the Pacific Aviation Ministers approved a new aviation strategy aimed at ensuring “a safe, secure and sustainable aviation system” for the region. It is to be hoped that this initiative works, despite the region’s many competing priorities, political uncertainties and shifting allegiances.

But the current political divisions on Micronesia’s place within the greater Pacific family suggest that these challenges will persist for some time.

Pacific Forum Economics Ministers meeting in Vanuatu today and tomorrow already said “the sense of urgency is very real”. Their discussions on “resilient economic recovery and stability” should include the role of regional aviation in achieving these goals.

Any realistic strategy for a “Blue Pacific Continent” must involve good governance, cooperation and the sustainability of sustainable airlines so that they can connect nations across this vast expanse of ocean for generations to come.

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