Route closure threatens Samoa Airways' survival: ex-Polynesian Airlines G.M.

The former General Manager of Polynesian Airlines, Papalii Grant Percival, has criticised the planned closure of a flight route between Nadi and Apia, saying it will threaten Samoa Airways’ survival.

On Saturday, the Samoa Observer revealed Cabinet had approved a decision to close the route and have passengers travelling to Fiji first transit through Auckland using Samoa Airways. Days later, Fiji Airways confirmed the two airlines had been in discussions about partnerships and code-share agreements.

Papalii, who was with Polynesian Airlines when it negotiated the first Air Service Agreement (A.S.A.) between Fiji and Samoa, said the decision is the latest in a “litany of failures” that will damage Samoa Airways’ future.

The decision follows last year’s grounding of the Boeing 737 Max model plane, which forced Samoa Airways into a hastily arranged lease of a plane (and crew) from Malaysian-headquartered Malindo Air. 

The airline also withdrew from a multilateral air services agreement with eight other states including America; faced the closure of Fagalii Airport; and dealt with a downturn led by two infectious disease outbreaks, Papalii noted. 

“It reads like a litany of failures that shall hurt our carrier's ability to employ Malaysians in our country’s attempt to provide an air service,” he said. 

“Samoa Air has an air taxi license and needs to be able to operate its own aircraft as it is better to keep the money in Samoa instead of sending it to Malaysia and Indonesia.”

Should the move to close the Nadi – Apia route go ahead, Papalii said it would render the border effectively closed meaning neither can promote themselves as a destination to the other.

Anyone (except citizens) travelling through New Zealand or Australia require a transit visa, which requires a confirmed ticket to be issued. 

But without an interline agreement (where more than one airline agrees to handle passengers travelling across their companies), Samoa Airways passengers will be at a disadvantage, Papalii said. 

He argued that the changes would have the effect of benefiting Air New Zealand:

“Passengers can have their baggage ticketed through to Fiji and not have to collect it in Auckland and check in again. Samoa Airways will get negative publicity from this as passengers vote overwhelmingly to not be hugely inconvenienced,” Papalii said. 

“If I did not know better I would think Air New Zealand is advising the airline how to cut its throat and the airline is doing just that and the Government is accepting it […] the reasons given are ludicrous.”

Upon learning the two airlines are in discussions about codeshare agreements, Papalii said the threat to close the route looks more like: “an attempt by Government to back their airline in its negotiations with Fiji Airways and it is not going to work.

“Fiji Airways is not going to be challenged by this as we as the country are the loser.

“Samoa Airways negotiating from a weak position means you have to try and give a win scenario, and this approach shows a little naivety,” he said. 

In his weekly interview with Government newspaper “Savali”, Prime Minister Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi admitted the Cabinet paper was approved to "promote proactive talks" between the two airlines.

"The decision by Cabinet is to promote proactive talks between the two airlines to revive discussions on their code-sharing agreement, executed many years ago but had not been implemented," Tuilaepa said.

"In essence, Cabinet’s intervention is to ensure that the discussions resume between the management of Fiji Airways and Samoa Airways, especially when we are facing daunting challenges with reduced travels as a result of the coronavirus, restricting travel opportunities between Samoa and the outside world."

Papalii said travelers from China and Singapore, for example, currently benefit from the Nadi – Apia route because of Fiji’s visa free transit.

He says people have often told him that they have chosen not to travel to Samoa after realising their preferred transit destination – New Zealand – required them to obtain a transit visa.

“It would take them only one day but when you are on a seven day visit and you lost a day or two you inevitably cancel as it is not worth it. So I have always advised the groups that contact me to come via Fiji to avoid the visa hassles,” he said.

“So we are losing Fijian visitors, our only convenient connection to North America through Honolulu and surprise, surprise we cannot sell tickets to [the United States of America (U.S.A.)] via American Samoa.”

Instead, passengers wanting to get from Samoa to the United States have to travel through New Zealand, and on Air New Zealand. 

This is due to Samoa withdrawing from a Multilateral Air Service Agreement in March 2019, that covered travel to America. 

At the time, the Ministry of Works Transport and Infrastructure said it decided to pull out of the Multilateral Agreement on the Liberalization of International Air Transportation (M.A.L.I.A.T.) in favour of more bilateral agreements instead.

The Ministry’s Chief Executive Officer, Magele Hoe Viali, said a replacement agreement between the U.S.A and Samoa was being vetted by the Government of Samoa. 

When contacted for comment, an airline spokeswoman said: "Samoa Airways has no further comment at this time."

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