PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT
Pacific Islands Development Program/East-West Center
Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawai‘i at Manoa
AIR MARSHALLS TO HALT SERVICE TO KIRIBATI, TUVALU AND FIJI
By Giff Johnson
MAJURO, Marshall Islands (January 22, 1999 - Marshall Islands Journal)---After 15 years of air service to the South Pacific, Air Marshall Islands will halt all international flights by next month in a move to improve domestic service, according to the AMI general manager in Majuro.
General manager Marc Mackay said that the AMI board had approved discontinuing the Fiji route, which connects Majuro with the South Pacific nations of Kiribati, Tuvalu and Fiji. He said that the change could be effective as early as February 1, but that details of the plan were still being organized.
Air Marshalls has flown the Fiji route since 1984, building it from a once-a-week service to three weekly flights two years ago. Currently AMI operates twice a week into Nadi and Suva using a British-built HS748.
Sometimes customers called AMI "Air Maybe" when the single plane used on the route broke down, stranding passengers in distant islands while the plane awaited delivery of parts and engineers. But AMI was one of only a few air carriers servicing the central Pacific region, and its service opened -- for the first time -- a direct link between islands in the north and south, stimulating travel in this thinly populated part of the Pacific.
Longtime AMI pilot Helbert Alfred, who has flown planes on the Fiji route since its inception 15 years ago, said he hoped that the board would reconsider its decision to end the air service. He said the airline made a profit on a unique route that provides "the only direct link to Kiribati, Tuvalu and Fiji." Suspending service on the route will encourage other airlines that are already looking at the route to move in, making it "very difficult to get back in" at a later date, he added.
Mackay said the move was designed to refocus the airline on improving and expanding its domestic services, which included expansion of services to tourist destinations such at Bikini Atoll.
Finance Minister and AMI board member Tony deBrum said that the airline is moving ahead with selling both its HS748 and the newer Saab 2000, which Air Vanuatu is currently leasing. A buyer has already bid $900,000 for the 748, and deBrum indicated that Saab Aircraft itself is likely to buy back the Saab 2000. AMI is negotiating with Germany-based Dornier to purchase two Dornier 328s -- a larger version of the Dornier 228 19-seater commuter planes now in service to the remote islands in the Marshalls.
DeBrum said that sale of the two planes will generate funds needed to get the new planes, as well as refit the older 228s. By having a fleet of planes that are all made by Dornier, "the equipment will be totally compatible," he said. "Our pilots and mechanics are familiar with these planes, and it won't require a lot of different parts."
AMI officials indicated that the Dornier 328, a twin engine plane that seats 31 passengers, has the range to service the Fiji route if a decision is made to restart service in the future.
MARSHALL ISLANDS JOURNAL
Box 14, Majuro, Marshall Islands 96960