Minister reveals Samoa Airways plan

By Lanuola Tusani Tupufia - Ah Tong, 10 March 2019

The Minister of Public Enterprises, Lautafi Fio Purcell, has revealed Samoa Airways will get two aircrafts this year. 

During an interview with the Sunday Samoan, Lautafi said the national carrier's new Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft is scheduled to arrive in the country next month. This will replace the leased Boeing 737-800.

The second new aircraft is expected to arrive in August this year and will have the same capacity as the current plane. 

Lautafi maintained that the Government's position to bring in more planes is a recommendation from consultation, prior to discontinuing the joint venture with Virgin Australia. It will start with two to three planes.

“That is the luxury of having two aircrafts is we can look at other destinations,” said the Minister. 

“We can look at Melbourne, Wellington and Tonga and all those other destinations. We will have it fully crewed by Samoans – from the pilot to co-pilot and crew members – and they will be trained for that.”

According to the Minister, the Boeing 737 Max 9 is a brand new aircraft that can carry 189 passengers, including 16 in business class. 

The Boeing 737 Max aircraft are fitted with the latest technology offering flexibility and is designed to provide passengers with a comfortable flying experience.The airplane will feature the new Boeing Sky Interior, highlighted by modern sculpted sidewalls and window reveals, LED lighting that enhances the sense of spaciousness and larger overhead stowage bins.

The national airline's current Boeing 737-800 has a seating capacity of 172 including eight in business class. 

“This is the cheapest for a brand new plane and it is going to be bigger in size and carrying more people and a lot of freight,” explained Lautafi. 

“It is planned to arrive first week of April and the first flight to Auckland is scheduled on 15 April if everything goes well. 

“It will replace the current plane that its lease finishes on 14 April while the new one flies out on 15. Its being painted and will have the Pacific Games logo on it and those are some of the small things that need to be done before it is ready. These are crucial because you cannot undo these things once they are put together, you do it once you do it right.”

The new Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft will be leased from the Air Lease Corporation (A.L.C.) in the United States. Representatives from the company were recently in the country to officially sign an agreement with the Government to lease the aircraft. 

The other aircraft that is expected to arrive in August this year is also brand new and will be leased from Fiji Airways. 

Samoa Airways – the successor to Polynesian Airlines – started its operations in 2017 with a Boeing 737-800 aircraft after a joint venture air service partnership between Virgin Australia and the Samoa Government folded. Despite possessing only one aircraft, the airline was able to fly to Auckland and Sydney. 

“We managed to start with one plane and went well considering the circumstances,” said Lautafi. 

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“The only small problem we had was the structural (damage) that was struck by catering truck but anything to do with the engine there are no problems with that.” 

Asked how much is the Government paying to lease the new Boeing 737 Max 9 aircraft, the Minister said "it is cheaper than the lease for the current plane". 

“The new plane is bigger and is going to be cheaper because we will be using our own pilot and engineers. At the moment we are paying wages for pilot, engineer and their accommodation and all, that all comes under the lease. The new one we wont have that we will have our own pilot and engineers”.  

Lautafi said the start-up costs are expensive and the airline business is an expensive one to get into. Specialised aviation equipment are costly and these include the "tug" – specially-made vehicles that push aircraft back from an airport gate – which the Minister revealed will cost about $1 million for one and two are needed for Samoa Airways. 

Another massive cost that the airline had to incur in the start-up of its operation is payment for an international booking system at a value of $200,000 on top of the yearly renewal fee.

“So we have new plane coming but we have already established the cost for these expensive things we need,” he said. 

 “We are generating revenue now and paying for lease and other costs. We wont be able to say everything we have from now is going to be profit, not in this kind of business. But that is how business is run; you pay bills and try to generate ways for revenue like freight and advertisement so people can support our airline.” 

The birth of Samoa Airways in 2017 and the start of its service triggered a lot of public criticism with concerns about the safety of its aircraft. 

But Lautafi said the public didn't realise that the airline's first aircraft was leased from Europe, where aviation standards are very strict. 

“From the beginning people said things as if the plane we are using was built at the wharf,” he said. 

“But it came from Europe where standards and requirements are strict and we have to meet those standards. The standards of aircraft are so strict you cannot cut corners and so it should be because it is carrying lives of hundreds of people that is why it is very expensive. 

“And we are very confident we are going to pay lease at the moment and look into another aircraft then the money starts coming.”  

In terms of airline competition, the Minister is content that the Government has succeeded in its goal to offer cheaper airfares. 

He said whether it is $10 tala less than the competitor, it is the goal of Samoa Airways to offer cheaper prices than the competition to benefit the people. 

However, Lautafi emphasised that offering cheap airfares should not put at risk the airline's own financial position and a line has to be drawn. 

“If we didn’t have a plane our people would still be paying $1700 return flight, and no matter how expensive it is, they still pay because they have fa’alavelave to attend to. And these airlines know that even if we say Samoans don’t have money, they will find money to fly in to attend a funeral or bestowment of titles.  So we have achieved that goal and has impacted on other airlines to drop their prices so our people can fly in affordable costs.”

When asked if it is cheaper to buy an aircraft instead of a lease, the Minister laughed and said the cost of a new plane is about $300 million.

“No Pacific island can afford to buy that straight away, not sure about Fiji,” he said. 

“With the number of people in our country that travel, we won’t be able to generate enough funds to buy a plane with the distant of traveling that we catering for our people between here and new Zealand.”  

By Lanuola Tusani Tupufia - Ah Tong, 10 March 2019

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