The National, Monday November 4th, 2013
ON November 1, 1973, Air Niugini’s Fokker F27 flight PX100 was launched by Chief Minister Michael Somare and Transport Minister Bruce Jephcott.
That inaugural flight marked the birth of Papua New Guinea’s national airline, which took to our skies with a small fleet of Fokker F27 and DC 3 aircraft.
Forty years on, the national airline boasts a fleet of two Boeing 767s, three Boeing 737s, seven Fokker 100s jets and 15 Dash 8 turbo-prop aircraft. It now employs more than 2,000 workers that include pilots, engineers and other technical and administration staff.
Last Friday, Air Niugini celebrated its 40th anniversary at the nearby Gateway Hotel with chief executive officer Simon Foo telling guests at the function the airline had made a net profit of K100 million and gross revenue of K1 billion in the last financial year.
Foo attributed the excellent financial results to the PNG LNG development and other business activities associated with the construction phase of the project.
He announced the airline would take delivery of its first Boeing 787 Dreamliner in 2017, followed by a second delivery in 2020.
Great news indeed for the airline and its owner, the State, whose chief executive and Prime Minister Peter O’Neill was among the special guests.
A very special guest was Sir Michael Somare, the country’s founding father and prime minister who was, sadly, without his colleague who helped him launch the airline 40 years ago.
Sir Bruce Jephcott, who died some years ago, would have been as elated as the grand chief with the excellent financial results.
Neither of them could have imagined that Air Niugini would survive the turbulent formative years and fly on to become the success story it is today.
However, it has not been all smooth flying for the airline, which started as a domestic carrier but soon expanded to offer international services.
In establishing the airline, the former Somare Government had aimed to encourage regional development in a country without an extensive road network. The State initially held 60% of the shares in Air Niugini, with Ansett Airlines (16%), Qantas Airways (12%) and Trans Australia Airlines (12%).
In 1976, the Government bought out the Qantas and TAA holdings and in 1980 acquired the Ansett shares to make the airline wholly State-owned. International services began very early on in the history of the airline with a leased Boeing 720 in 1976. During the late 1970s, domestic services were performed by a combination of Fokker F28 jets and Fokker F27 turbo-prop aircraft.
The fleet of F-27s was phased out in the early 1980s with the introduction of the newly developed de Havilland Canada Dash 7 four-engine turbo-prop. Air Niugini introduced the modern Fokker 100 jet aircraft to its fleet in September 2004 to replace the aging Fokker F28 aircraft that were used on domestic routes, the daily Cairns service and the twice a week service to Honiara, Solomon Islands.
The airline endured considerable hardships in the 1990s with unrest in Bougainville and a volcanic eruption in Rabaul destabilising its busiest domestic services. The Asian currency crisis made an impact, with Air Niugini posting financial losses in that decade.
The Government responded by cutting jobs from the airline, suppressing wages, as well as opening offices in Asia and Europe in an attempt at having the airline run profitably. The reforms bore fruit by 2003 with the airline posting a profit of US$15.8 million that year.
The financial turnaround seems to have stymied pressure from International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Australian government, to privatise the national carrier.
The Government had expressed concerns that privatisation would jeopardise domestic routes that provide a vital service to the rural majority and encourage economic development, but which fail to realise a profit.
In March 2006, then Transport and Civil Aviation Minister Don Polye announced an open air policy, which would allow other airlines to fly international routes into and from PNG. The policy took effect in 2007.
It has been an extraordinary journey for the national carrier and its success today can be attributed to the hard work, commitment and dedication of its past and present work force.
Well done Air Niugini and keep flying high for the next 40 years.