Alan Ah Mu
APIA: FRIDAY 20 SEPTEMBER 2013: Had Fagali’i International Airport not been re-opened Polynesian would have died as an airline.
Of that Chief Executive Officer Taua Fatu Tielu is certain.
Competition from two American Samoa rivals with faster and bigger aircraft was fierce, said Taua.
All three airlines, all serving the inter-Samoa route, flew solely out of Faleolo International Airport.
Because in January 2005 Samoa Airport Authority (SAA) citing safety reasons related to the physical surrounds closed Fagali’i.
Taua never accepted that believing instead that SAA was finding it too expensive to run both Faleolo and Fagali’i.
The land the Fagali’i airstrip sits on belonged as it still does to Polynesian.
Upon closure a buyer became interested in buying the land.
“I forgot what happened but that buyer pulled out and another buyer came along,” said Taua.
“Sometime in September 2006 we signed a sale and purchase agreement with this second buyer,” he said.
“The buyer put down a deposit and kept asking for time extension for him to settle in full. Eventually after two years in September 2008 the buyer still could not come up with the full price so he pulled out too and we kept his deposit, a seven figure amount.”
Government and Virgin Australia established a joint venture, now named Virgin Samoa, in November 2005, which took over Polynesian’s jet services.
A much-reduced Polynesian made a profit in 2006.
“In September 2007 we returned our leased 37-seater Dash-8 aircraft as it was beginning to bleed the company and decided to return to a Twin Otter aircraft only fleet,” said Taua.
They made a profit in 2007 and 2008 as well but he could see financial death ahead because of the competition.
Fagali’i offered passengers an airport much closer to the capital Apia and to Tutuila Island home of Pago Pago International Airport of American Samoa.
Further twin otters could land and take off from there but not bigger aircraft of which rivals had and more suitable to distant Faleolo.
“I was praying for (the) Fagali’i land sale to fall through as I clearly saw re-opening of Fagali’i airport as our saviour from the fierce competition we were facing from our two American Sāmoa Competitors.
“The PM (Tuilaepa Sa’ilele Malielegaoi) got angry with me one time for mentioning to him too often the need to re-open Fagali’i.
“When the sale fell through I finally convinced the PM and the Board that this was God’s answer that Fagali’i should be re-opened.
“We made a request to Cabinet and Cabinet appointed a committee consisting of Polynesian Airlines, SAA, Attorney General, MWTI and STA.
“The committee confirmed that there is nothing illegal about Poly owning and operating Fagali’i as well as its aircraft and it would help Poly’s business.”
Rehabilitation of the Fagali’i property and construction of the terminal building started on February 2009.
The place was overgrown with weeds and residents of Fagali’i had planted a cricket pitch on the airstrip and trees outside along the landing and takeoff path had to be cleared away.
The airport was re-opened for business on 1st of July 2009.
Two months later one of Polynesian’s rivals went belly-up.
“That would have been us if we hadn’t re-opened Fagali’i airport,” said Taua.
“Your question whether any other entity would’ve done it my answer is no because it is not cheap to build an airport and especially if you don’t have any aircraft to use it.
“Furthermore if we hadn’t re-open Fagali’i, it will still be lying there up to this moment with overgrown weeds or under housing construction with a new owner that we would have sold the property to as SAA never wanted to re-open it because it makes no business sense for them to open both Fagali’i and Faleolo when Faleolo is heavily under-utilised.”
SAA General Manager, Magele Hoe Viali said Taua once stopped a rival airline from using Fagali’i.
Taua denied it.
What happened was the airline referred to owed Polynesian over $150 000.
They wanted the rival airline to first pay its debt before use of the airport could be considered.
“They did not want to pay a cent,” said Taua.
“So we did not deny them entry to Fagali’i … they denied it themselves.”