Air Niugini upgrades Chuuk and Pohnpei after one year, boosting Micronesia tourism

27 October, 2017

Air Niugini is adding capacity to the Federal States of Micronesia (FSM) as it marks its year anniversary of serving the remote island country.

Air Niugini launched flights to FSM on 6-Dec-2016 with two weekly flights. It has since been operating one frequency on a Port Moresby-Chuuk-Pohnpei routing and a second frequency on a Port-Moresby-Pohnpei-Chuuk-Port Moresby routing, both using Fokker 70 regional jets.

Air Niugini recently announced the upgrade of one of its FSM flights to a 737-700 from 9-Dec-2017. Air Niugini configures its 737-700s with 122 seats, including 16 business seats and 106 economy seats, compared to 80 all economy seats on its Fokker 70s. As a result, Air Niugini’s FSM capacity will increase by more than 25% and will offer a premium product for the first time in the FSM market.

For most markets 42 weekly one-way seats is a drop in the bucket. However, for FSM it is significant given the tiny size of the market and the country’s limited connectivity. It is also significant as it indicates the Air Niugini service to Pohnpei and Chuuk has initially succeeded.

Air Niugini’s launch of services to FSM a year ago was a big deal as previously the country was only served by two airlines, Nauru Airlines and United. Air Niugini has provided a critical new link to the southwest, offering fast connections to several Asia Pacific destinations beyond Port Moresby.

Nauru Airlines is a small airline with a tiny presence in FSM but provides an important link within the Pacific. Nauru Airlines currently operates one weekly flight on a Nauru-Tarawa- Majuro-Pohnpei routing. However, it dropped a stop in Kosrae between Majuro (in the Marshall Islands) and Pohnpei earlier this year. Nauru Airlines has been planning the last several months to extend its Pohnpei service to Guam but has not yet added this link.

See related report: Air Nauru is a small fish in a very big pond

Kosrae is one of four airports in FSM with commercial service along with Pohnpei, Chuuk and Yap. Following Nauru Airlines’ withdrawal Kosrae is only served by United with four weekly flights, including two to Kwajalein (in the Marshall Islands) and two to Pohnpei.

United is also the only airline serving Yap. United currently has three weekly flights from Yap, including two to Guam and one to Koror in Palau. However, United is planning to suspend the Yap-Koror route in Jan-2018.

Chuuk is only served by United and Air Niugini. United has eight weekly flights from Chuuk including four to Guam and four to Pohnpei. Air Niugini therefore accounts for two or 20% of the number of flights at Chuuk – although a smaller amount of capacity as United uses 737-800s.

From Pohnpei, United has seven weekly flights including four to Chuuk, two to Kosrae and one to Kwajalein. When factoring in the one weekly flight from Nauru Airlines, Air Niugini therefore also accounts for 20% of all flights at Pohnpei.

The largest city in FSM, Weno, is on Chuuk island. However, Pohnpei is a more popular tourist destination and is where the capital Palikir is situated. Pohnpei is home to remarkable UNESCO recognised architectural remains dating from the 13th century.

The FSM’s population is only slightly over 100,000. Tourism has an important role but attracting tourists has always been an issue due to the island country’s very remote location and lack of air services. FSM only attracts approximately 30,000 visitors per year.

In announcing the new service to FSM last year, Air Niugini stated that it “will work closely with the FSM government and the tourism industry to promote the growing tourist opportunities that PNG and FSM offer, including stopover and two-centre opportunities for visitors to experience both countries”.

Air Niugini chairman Frederick Reiher told a business conference in Papua New Guinea last week the airline is working on building a hub connecting Asia and North Queensland with the Pacific Islands. “We are seeing a large increase in the number of passengers connecting between the Pacific Islands and Asia, and between Queensland and Asia and the Pacific Islands,” Mr Reiher said.

He added that Air Niugini has selected Shanghai as a new destination as part of a strategy to start connecting China with the Pacific Islands and North Queensland. Air Niugini currently has five destinations in East Asia but does not serve mainland China. It also has five destinations in the Pacific Islands and four destinations in Australia (three of which are in Queensland).

Air Niugini’s Pacific Island network includes Honiara in the Solomon Island, Port Villa in Vanuatu and Nadi in Fiji along with Chuuk and Pohnpei in FSM. Port Vila and Nadi are served via Honiara; the Honiara-Port Villa extension was added in 2015.

The FSM service, which was initially viewed as experimental, has been successful, prompting the additional capacity and consideration of other new South Pacific routes. Air Niugini has been looking at launching services to Tarawa in Kiribati and Majuro in the Marshall Islands, which would extend its Pacific network to seven destinations.