Samoan Government Blocks Virgin Australia Flights to New Zealand

A Virgin Australia 777-300ER departs from Sydney Airport (Photo: AirlineGeeks | Hisham Qadri)

Over 6,000 passengers had their travel plans thrown into chaos this week when the Government of Samoa blocked Virgin Australia from commencing their five-times weekly service between Apia and Auckland, New Zealand. The route, due to start on Nov. 13, was scheduled to operate five times a week between the two Oceania nations.

The Australian carrier had been in partnership with the Samoan government on a subsidiary airline Virgin Samoa, which is due to cease operations on Nov. 12. The route would’ve picked up where Virgin Samoa left off.

The government announced in May that the venture would be coming to an end as their focus would be on growing the mainly regional carrier Polynesian Airlines, which is being rebranded as Samoa Airways, in a deal with the resurgent Fiji Airways. The Fijian airline underwent a similar rebranding in 2012, reclaiming the Fiji Airways moniker after decades of operation as Air Pacific.

The route between Samoa’s capital and New Zealand’s biggest city has been the subject of protectionist, monopolistic behavior in the past. Particularly when Samoa’s Polynesian Airlines and New Zealand’s national carrier, Air New Zealand, were the only two operators.

A deal between the Samoan government and Air New Zealand restricted the ability to compete on the route, which links Apia with an extremely large ex-pat community in Auckland, and fares were historically high. In 2006, Polynesian Airlines scaled back operations and became a regional carrier servicing the islands around Samoa which have subsequently seen a rise in overseas visitors.

The move to limit Virgin Australia’s growth in the region is seen as the Samoan government’s opportunity to launch newly rebranded Samoa Airways on long-haul routes and capitalize on increased tourism to the island nation.

The announcement from the Samoan government does not affect Virgin Australia’s plans to operate to the Samoan capital from Australian cities. The move to deny regulatory approval for the Apia-Auckland route is being considered by Virgin Australia to be a breach of the Bilateral Air Service Agreement in place between Australia and Samoa, and it has asked for assistance from the Australian government in resolving the matter.

This issue again puts the spotlight on existing Bilateral Air Service Agreements and whether they are ‘fit for purpose’ in the constantly changing economic and political environments in which airlines are operating.

Bilateral Air Service Agreements between countries are the foundation of the modern aviation industry and are negotiated to levels up to and including Open Skies — allowing unrestricted access between countries. Whilst the notion of Open Skies may give the impression of deregulated and liberal access, this is most certainly not the case with some agreements restricting slots and access to airports and cities.

For instance, the Open Skies agreement between the U.S. and Japan gave U.S. carriers limited night operation into Haneda airport, the closest airport to Tokyo, but, in 2016, was expanded to allow a limited number of day flights.

As the aviation market in the Pacific continues to grow and passenger numbers increase, the market is becoming increasingly competitive. The World Bank reported that visitor numbers for Samoa alone had increased from 68,000 in 1995 to 128,000 in 2015, with passengers from New Zealand and the U.S. showing the greatest increase.

Whilst the number of airlines operating within the region may marginally increase, those currently operating within the Pacific are increasing passenger loads and capabilities by increasing services and upgrading from single-aisle aircraft to larger planes, such as the 787-9.

John Flett

John Flett

John has always had a passion for aviation and through a career with Air New Zealand has gained a strong understanding of aviation operations and the strategic nature of the industry. During his career with the airline, John held multiple leadership roles and was involved in projects such as the introduction of both the 777-200 and -300 type aircraft and the development of the IFE for the 777-300. He was also part of a small team who created and published the internal communications magazines for Air New Zealand’s pilots, cabin crew and ground staff balancing a mix of corporate and social content.

John is educated to postgraduate level achieving a masters degree with Distinction in Airline and Airport Management and has recently led an undergraduate Aviation Management course for 450 students at a leading London university. John is currently an external instructor for IATA (International Air Transport Association) and a member of the Heathrow Community Fund’s ‘Communities for Tomorrow’ panel.
John Flett