Six Decades of Flying Fiji
As Fiji’s international airline as it celebrates its 60th birthday, it gives thanks to all who have made it a success.
On 1st September 1951, a 7-seater De Havilland Dragon Rapide took off from the Fiji’s Nausori Airport to Drasa Airport near Lautoka, on the west coast of the main island. This first commercial flight saw the birth of what today is a truly international, Fijian airline. Together with its domestic/regional subsidiary of Pacific Sun, Air Pacific flies over 400 flights a week to almost 15 cities in 10 countries around the world.
Taking on various challenges that no airline in the global airline industry is immune from, Air Pacific has passed various tests with flying colours, more than ably fulfilling its dual roles of flying Fiji and contributing significantly to its economy.
For its Managing Director and CEO Dave Pflieger, the 60th anniversary offers an opportunity to salute all those that have worked or flown on Fiji’s national carrier.
“I’d like to say Vinaka Vakalevu or thank you very much to all of you who have been flying us over the years for your business and loyalty. It’s a testament to the commitment and dedication of Air Pacific staff, and to the resolve and loyalty of the people of Fiji that we have been able to come this far. There are not many national airlines that have survived the test of time, but Air Pacific continues to bring visitors and residents to and from Fiji every day of the year, and in doing so, we are able to directly contribute to the development and economy of the country.”
“Since Harold Gatty - Wiley Post’s famous navigator - founded the company as Katafaga Estates Limited back in 1951, Air Pacific, along with our subsidiary Pacific Sun, has grown considerably. We employ over 800 employees, we fly over 400 flights per week and carry one million passengers per year using Boeing 747, 767, 737, ATR-42 and DHC6 Twin Otter aircraft. Our destinations include Hong Kong, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Vanuatu, and Solomon Islands - an impressive feat for an airline our size.”
To commemorate its 60-year anniversary, Air Pacific released a range of sale fares for flights to and from Fiji. Today Air Pacific is a major employer in Fiji, with almost 800 employeesand pays a significant amount in taxes to the Fijian Government. Its importance to the country goes without saying.
Air Pacific offers customers two great travel class options when flying to or from Fiji (except on flights operated by the ATR-42).
Tabua Class is our business class, offering discerning travellers a unique and exclusive class of travel. On the ground, customers who choose to fly Tabua Class can enjoy business class check-in, increased baggage allowance, express airport lanes and access to great lounge facilities at most airports.
In the air, Tabua Class customers get to a three course meal, a range of fine wines, champagne, liqueurs and a selection of cheeses. With individual screens, there is a choice of up to 21 channels of entertainment on the Boeing 747 aircraft and up to 10 movies on our other aircraft.
The Pacific Voyager is our economy class. With naturally friendly cabin crew and elegant, yet relaxed cabin décor, guests can sit back and enjoy the hospitality of one of the world’s most welcoming cultures.
There are a great range of entertainment options to choose from onboard Air Pacific international services. From the classics to comedies, customers can enjoy the broad range of blockbuster movies and TV programs. On Air Pacific’s Boeing 747 aircraft, customers can also challenge themselves with the selection of interactive games available. A choice of 8 audio channels is also offered onboard ranging from top 40 hits to classical pieces and Hindi Hits, while there’s also a dedicated channel for children.
Our meals reflect South Pacific cuisine (on long-haul flights) and light snacks (on short-haul flights) accompanied by international wines, spirits and beers. One key point to note is that with Air Pacific, in keeping with the generous Fijian tradition of top-notch hospitality, has kept our onboard entertainment, meals and drinks free of charge!
About the founder
Harold George Gatty was born to British parents in Campelltown in Tasmania on 5 January 1903 and came to settle in Fiji after World War II. He was no stranger to the island nation, as he was based in Auckland before the war as Australasia’s representative of Pan American World Airways. He joined the US Army Air Force during the war, serving first in Java before relocating to Brisbane at General Douglas McArthur’s headquarters and New Guinea after that.
He returned to his Pan American job in Auckland at the end of the war and moved to settle in Fiji a few years later. Here he bought an island in Fiji’s eastern island group called Katafaga and turned it into a coconut estate. Before his Pan American job, Gatty had made his name in air navigation in the United States. Using his good sea navigation skills acquired as a cadet midshipman trainee at the Australian Naval College, Gatty invented a navigation system for pilots.
In conjunction with the so called ‘Weems Curves’,Gatty devised his revolutionary ground speed and drift indicator. This allowed for navigation by dead reckoning and did away with the need to take shots from the sun or stars, and it was the forerunner of the automatic pilot, now standard equipment on virtually all commercial and military aircraft.
Gatty got to use his own invention that shot him to international fame when Canadian pilot Lieutenant Harold Bromley invited him to be his navigator in his attempt to fly across the Pacific from Honshu, Japan, to Tacoma in Washington State, USA in September 1930. Fuel tank problem forced the plane back to Honshu after 1,900km of flying, and it is said that despite heavy fogs, Gatty navigated the plane by dead reckoning back to their starting point.
Again he followed this up in 1931 when Wiley Post, a native American oil rigger and stuntman flew around the world in eight days. Gatty was his navigator and that feat earned the two aviators a ticker-tape welcome in New York City. As a British citizen, the US Congress awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross. It was said that despite the accolades, Gatty declined the offer to become an American citizen. His appointment not long thereafter as Pan American World Airways representative based in Auckland brought him to the Pacific, and to Fiji.
Gatty submitted a proposal to Fiji’s then Colonial Government to operate the country’s domestic airline and registered it as Katafaga Estates. The first commercial flight was one September 1st, 1951. While Gatty died on August 30th1958, his bold and visionary initiative had taken off to greater heights, and today has etched its place in Fiji’s aviation history.
During the eventful 60-years, Air Pacific was also about an attempt at regionalism that almost succeeded. By the early 1970s, up to seven island governments of the Pacific, some of them still under British colonial rule then, held shares in Air Pacific. This was in addition to shares held by QANTAS, New Zealand’s TEAL and the British Overseas Airways Corporation, forerunners of Air New Zealand and British Airways respectively. But the regional airline idea fizzled as other Government’s bailed out, leaving Fiji as the majority shareholders in the airline.
For a small airline, Air Pacific has always been punching way above its weight. Early in the 1980s, it pioneered the code-share concept with QANTAS. Today, code-sharing is an accepted airline practice the world over. 25 January 1995 was another watershed date for Fiji’s airline when it launched what was believed to be a trail blazing concept of joint leasing of aircraft with the then Royal Tongan Airline. The concept came complete with the livery of the two airlines painted on each half of the Boeing 737-300 fuselage.
Giving thanks where it’s due
There’s general consensus that a long list of men and women helped Fiji’s international airline get to where it is today. From the pioneers and visionaries brave enough to operate an airline out of the middle of the Pacific during its early years to the hundreds of dedicated and committed Fijians workinghard to make it the world’s friendliest airline; words cannot do justice to describe the gratitude of the company.
10 years ago, long serving former chairman of the airline, retired business executive Gerald Barrack paid tribute to Gatty’s vision and the pioneering spirit of men and women like him “from the days when pilots flew Dragon Rapides and Drovers by the seat of their pants.” Days like the one where passengers boarded the Rapides plane and realized that there was no pilot, so a man wearing a bright bula (floral) shirt volunteered to fly the machine. Little did they realize that the man with the bright shirt was actually Fred Ladd, Gatty’s first Chief Pilot, playing his usual practical jokes!
Invited for his observations as Air Pacific celebrates its 60th anniversary, Air Pacific’s immediate past CEO John Campbell said the men and women who built the airline are a source of great pride. “It is not easy to operate a reliable airline with a wide spread network from a small country in the middle of the Pacific. There are logistical, training, spare parts inventory and skill retention and development issues that an airline based in a major market does not face. That Air Pacific has been able to overcome these barriers is a credit to its people and a testament to their commitment and frequent personal sacrifice.”
“Fiji citizens can take pride in the overall success of their airline, which truly is the critical link between Fiji and the world and has been and hopefully will continue to be fully committed to serving Fiji's aviation needs. I believe this is what was hoped for by Harold Gatty when establishing the airline.”
As it celebrates its 60th birthday, current Managing Director & CEO Dave Pflieger joins his predecessor in praising Harold Gatty’s vision and the people of Fiji for making Air Pacific a world-class international airline.
“Air Pacific’s greatest asset is its people – from our maintenance and ground crews, to the pilots and flight attendants, to our schedulers and administrative staff,” Mr. Pflieger told Fiji Islands magazine. “Almost 800-strong, it is they who make us the world’s friendliest airline. The many changes and the improvements they are making now will serve Fiji and Fijians well for another 60 years. They are rising to the challenge of new competition and an ever changing world, and creating a strong legacy. It is an honour to work with everyone here.”
For an airline that was started by an acclaimed air navigator, inventor, airline manager, plantation baron and legislator, Air Pacific has grown into Fiji’s proud flag carrier now run by a pilot, lawyer, and businessman. From flying De Havilland Dragon Rapide in those days to the mighty four-engine 747 jumbo jet of today, the airline has truly come of age. Today, its most pressing challenges are increasing competition from low-cost carriers and ever increasing jet fuel prices. These have necessitated major restructuring within the company.
Said Pflieger: “Air Pacific’s goal is to become the preferred airline in the South Pacific. To do this in the face of today’s many challenges, we have to fundamentally change the way we operate. We must revamp our schedules, modernise our fleet, cut costs, deliver top-tier performance across all divisions, metrics and deliver world-class customer service that results in passengers choosing us over the competition.
“Thanks to the hard work of our entire team, we have made significant progress on all fronts. In particular, we have improved our on-time performance to a point where we are now matching or beating our competitors; and our schedule reliability, lost baggage report, compliment to complaint ratios, and other metrics are significantly better than they were last year. Thus, while there is still a lot more to do, we’re definitely on the right track, and as I’ve noted before, given all that we have to do to ensure the airline can succeed in the 21st century, this is both a sprint and a marathon.”
“On the topic of our fleet upgrade, we will soon be adding another B737-800 in November and, with this addition, we will be able to make exciting improvements to our schedules, including adding double daily flights to Sydney.
“Our customers appear pleased thus far with all of the above, and those changes are only a start as we begin work on other things like an improved website which now allows seat selection and greater flexibility and options when booking online at airpacific.com . In addition to being named the “Best South Pacific Airline” by Global Traveler magazine last year, we believe Air Pacific offers better value than our competitors on the flights to and from Fiji because we offer “more for less.” In other words, for the same low prices as other airlines, we provide seat selection and complimentary baggage, entertainment, food and drinks.”
So far as the history of Air Pacific goes, change is nothing new. As has been shown time and time again in the company’s 60 years of operation, it is not immune to challenges facing the world’s aviation industry; challenges tend to bring out the best in its people. In so doing, the airline is giving no better tribute to pioneers like Harold George Gatty and other equally bold and visionary men and women who have served before them.
By Shane Hussein