When Harold Gatty established Fiji's first domestic airline in the early 50s, he was continuing a tradition as a trail-blazing pioneer on the aviation circuit.
During his term as a midshipman trainee at the Australian Naval College, Gatty had invented a navigation system for pilots that did away with the need to take shots of the sun or stars — as was the practice at the time.
Gatty's invention became the forerunner of the automatic pilot system — now standard equipment on virtually all commercial and military aircraft.
In 1931, the aviator accompanied Wiley Post — a native American stuntman — as a navigator and flew around the world in eight days.
Although a British citizen, the US Congress awarded him the Distinguished Flying Cross. Despite the accolades and being lauded with a ticker-tape welcome in New York City, Gatty refused to become a US citizen.
Not long after this, he was appointed Pan American World Airways representative, to be based in Auckland, New Zealand. From there, the Englishman moved to, and settled in Fiji.
On September 1, 1951, Gatty's dream to establish a domestic carrier became a reality when a 7-seater De Havilland Dragon Rapide took off from Nausori Airport and landed at Drasa Airport near Lautoka, on the west coast of Viti Levu. That first commercial flight saw the birth of what has today become a truly international, yet distinctly Fijian airline.
de Havilland Australia DHA-3 Drover, Photo Credit: Glenn Alderton
Former airline chairman, retired business executive and now an active player in Tourism Fiji, 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.'
Barrack recalled pranks played on passengers in the early days.
"This was where passengers boarded the Rapide and realised that there was no pilot, so a man wearing a bright bula shirt would volunteer to fly the machine," he said, when invited for his observations about the airline on its colourful history 10 years ago.
"Little did they realise that the man with the bright shirt was actually Fred Ladd, Gatty's first chief pilot, playing his usual practical jokes!"
Harold Gatty passed away in 1958, the same year that Fiji Airways was acquired by Qantas. In the mid-60s Air New Zealand, the British Overseas Airways Corporation and the governments of Tonga, Western Samoa, Nauru, Kiribati, and the Solomon Islands also acquired stakes in the airline, driven by the intention to make Fiji Airways a regional carrier.
From the seven-seater De Havilland Dragon Rapide aircraft, Fiji Airways expanded to include 9-seater de Havilland Australia DHA-3 Drover aeroplanes and eventually the Douglas DC-3 which was capable of carrying 21 passengers.
A number of 14-seater De Havilland Heron aircraft was added to the fleet, as Fiji Airways rapidly began trying to meet increasing passenger demands on the eve of Fiji's Independence.
Fiji Airways became Air Pacific in 1971 and acquired Hawker Siddley 748 turbo props and BAC1-11 jets.
Photo Credit: Joe Barr, Air Pacific HS 748 (lease from Mount Cook Airline)
BAC 1-11, Photo Credit: apopkapostcardshoppe
The then regional carrier celebrated its first international flight on June 3, 1973. The flight engineer on the BAC1-11 was Andrew Drysdale, a man who would work his way to the helm of the airline.
When tourism surpassed agriculture as Fiji's leading industry, the Fiji government acquired a controlling interest in the airline in 1974 as Air Pacific's role in the country's economy became even more important. A year later services to Auckland, New Zealand were launched, followed by flights to Brisbane via Noumea.
In 1981, Air Pacific bought its first Boeing aircraft, a 737-200 and entered the modern jet age. The airline attempted to break into the lucrative US and Canadian market by leasing a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 aircraft when it launched Project America. Unfortunately, the initiative lasted only 14 months.
Boeing 737, Photo Credit: Fiji Airways
McDonnell Douglas DC-10, Photo Credit: Konstantin von Wedelstaedt
In the early 80s, following in the true pioneering spirit of Gatty, Air Pacific established the code-sharing concept with Qantas. Today, code-sharing is an accepted practice worldwide. Qantas began a 10-year management contract in 1985 and took Air Pacific from losses of between $4 to $7 million a year to a profit of close to $100,000 in 1986.
Operating profits hit a record $11 million in 1989 to 1990, with the airline carrying 300,000 passengers and reporting a revenue increase of 52 per cent or $100 million.
Air Pacific bought two ATR-42 aircraft in 1988.
Photo Credit: Joe Barr, ATR ATR-42-300, Air Pacific
With a total workforce of 650 employees, the airline expanded its fleet by leasing a Boeing 747 and 767 aircraft.
The airline relocated from Nausori to Nadi where it constructed a world-class maintenance hangar.
Air Pacific began servicing the US market again in 1994 with direct flights to Los Angeles in the wake of Continental Airlines pulling out of South Pacific routes.
This was followed by added flights to Melbourne, Australia, and the first ever joint leasing of a Boeing 737 with Royal Tongan Airlines.
The joint venture in 1995 was regarded as a first in aviation history with the two airlines colours adorning opposite sides of the aircraft.
In 1998, Qantas increased its equity in Air Pacific from 17.45 to 46 per cent, paying $27 million for the additional shares.
Its increased participation in Air Pacific saw the airline sign codeshare agreements—a practice pioneered by Air Pacific and Qantas—with Canadian Airlines and American Airlines. The airline from the dot in the ocean had grown in fleet size with modern Boeing 737 and 767 jets and ATR-42 turboprops that were utilised to regional destinations. At the time, Air Pacific employed 730 staff.
By the late 90s, Air Pacific was thriving. The airline ferried 412,000 passengers. Revenue for the fiscal year ending March 31 1999 were $371 million with profits increasing 60 per cent to $13 million, impressive results in the face of a currency devaluation.
Air Pacific began a rapid expansion program designed to take advantage of the upsurge in passenger and cargo traffic.
The airline increased its fleet to six aircraft acquiring three Boeing 737s and leasing a wide-body 767 and two 747-400 aircraft and increased flights to Australia and North America.
Boeing 747-400, Photo Credit: Flyvertosset
Despite political upheavals in 2000 and 2006, the global financial crisis, competition from budget carriers and increasing fuel costs, Air Pacific managed to stay afloat and was poised to enter a new era as it returned to its 1951 name, Fiji Airways.
As the airline prepares to retire its aged Boeing 747 aircraft, which are being replaced by three new Airbuses, acting CEO Aubrey Swift reflects on what the new changes mean to Fiji's proud national carrier. "It is exciting that after a 15-month journey, we can now be known as 'Fiji Airways' across the globe," he said.
"The changeover represents an exciting future for the airline that is rooted in our more than 60-year history and service to the people of Fiji.
"At the heart of our airline's new name and brand is the Fiji Airways' brandmark, a striking new masi design, created by celebrated local Fijian masi artist, Makereta Matemosi.
"The brandmark symbolises the airline's new identity and epitomises all that Fiji Airways represents. "It is authentic, distinctive, and true to the airline's Fijian roots.
"Fiji Airways will continue to be the country's flying ambassador to the world, bringing the renowned Fijian hospitality to people across the globe."
"The changeover underscores the success of the airline's turnaround plan, which started in 2010 and has culminated in reversing record losses and significantly growing passengers and revenue without increasing the size of the carrier's fleet.
"Schedule, product and service enhancements will be rolled out through the rest of 2013, along with the delivery of the third Fiji Airways A330 (and the retirement of the 747s). Thus, by the end of the year, the turnaround and brand transition will be complete."
Source: Felix Chaudhary
Wed, Aug 28 2013 12:42 PM
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