Inter Island Airways founder Senehighlights plans for Fijian flying

Fiji will soon have a new domestic airline starting operations. This is the brainchild of Barney Sene. Mr Sene co-founded Inter Island Airways, Inc., a US commuter airline serving Samoa
07 Feb 2013 10:08

Beech 1900D ... one of the type of aircraft Inter Island Airways is planning to use in Fiji. This 19-passenger pressurised turboprop is designed to operate into and out of airports with shorter runways. It cruises at about 500kph.

Fiji will soon have a new domestic airline starting operations. This is the brainchild of Barney Sene.
Mr Sene co-founded Inter Island Airways, Inc., a US commuter airline serving Samoa and American Samoa and Inter Island Airways (Fiji).

1. Barney, tell us a bit about yourself. You’re a former IT guy. How did you get segue into the airline business in Samoa? What’s your history with Samoa?
I grew up in American Samoa. In the late 70’s, I worked for South Pacific Island Airways, a Pago Pago-based US air carrier in their aircraft maintenance facilities as a maintenance apprentice. The airline operated DH6 Twin Otter and Islander aircraft equipment and was starting up Boeing 707 service in the South Pacific at the time.

2. Can you tell us a little about the history or your American Samoa Sister airline?
In the early 90’s, the US Federal Government had a contract for an air operator to provide aerial surveillance in the general American Samoa vicinity. Given our previous passion in aviation, my partners and I decided to start an airline (“Inter Island Airways”) in American Samoa to capture air surveillance contract at the time.
We eventually expanded into the on-demand passenger charter service during that period and eventually grew to provide regular domestic and international air service within the Samoas, becoming the only domestic American Samoa-based airline remaining after two other local airlines (Samoa Air and South Pacific Express) ceased operations.

3. How is your airline structured? What’s the connection between Aviana, based in Las Vegas, and Inter Island Airways Fiji?
Aviana Airways Corporation is the holding company for both Aviana Aviation LLC and Inter Island Airways (Fiji) Limited. Aviana Aviation LLC is our aircraft asset management company which will own and manage the aircraft, while Inter Island Airways (Fiji) Limited is the actual Fiji-based, Fiji certificate airline company.

4. The airline industry in Fiji is a very tough place to make a profit. Both Sunflower airlines and Air Fiji had a tough go of things before they left the scene. How will Inter Island Airways be different? Have you been profitable in Samoa?
Yes the airline industry is a tough field. It is susceptible to fuel price increases and, cost and availability of aircraft parts. Weather and other natural conditions also impact its operations and revenues. It is a people intensive business.
General “legacy” or large airlines have margins around 1.5 per cent to three per cent while smaller regional airlines have margins between five per cent and seven per cent. The margins depend heavily on how efficient the airline runs. Inter Island Airways in Samoa is a profitable airline and has great potential to capture more revenue through expansion given that 50 per cent of its aircraft assets are underutilized.
As an IT guy, I believe in the efficiencies of automation and having a “paperless” organisation. Thus a business that is driven electronically, moves with the speed of demand, and is able to shift quickly into new opportunities and economic shifts when they occur. Diversification is one component to weather the client during challenging times and, being ahead of potential challenges is also key to success.
Inter Island Airways Fiji will have one of the lowest cost airline benefits, just by being a start-up; we do not need to deal with legacy issues of past airlines. Also with our plans to leverage assets across both airlines in Fiji and Samoa, we begin to get the benefits of size as we expand throughout the South Pacific Region.

5. What compelled you to enter the Fiji market? What kinds of opportunities do you see?
Fiji is a large market. Compared to the surrounding South Pacific Island markets (not including Hawaii), Fiji is very large. When you see projections of tourist travelers to reach over 1 million in the next two to three years (from around 700,000 today), it’s natural for any business person to see the opportunities.
As tourism and international travel increases into Fiji, domestic travel has a correlating gain as well. One key difference from 10-15 years ago versus today is that there are now fast ferry boats to and some of the outer islands where aircraft was the primary means of transportation.
The road between Nadi and Suva has also improved and been upgraded. These become competing factors to domestic air transportation. However, boats and cars still do not get you to the outer islands quickly.
We see new Helicopter operators starting up and expanding service in Fiji. However, the cost to operate Helicopters is three times more expensive then fixed wing aircraft. The basic issues that Fiji’s domestic air market faces today are two things: (a) reliability of air service and; (b) number/frequency of air service. An air carrier that can address those two items and continue to offer low competitive air fares and continue to make a profit will win at the end.

6. Barney, tell us a bit about yourself. You’re a former IT guy. How did you get segue into the airline business in Samoa? What’s your history
Inter Island Airways see the opportunities to provide more frequent air service to the Northern Islands. This in turn will spur further development of the tourism infrastructure and hotels which in turn, will create further demand for more air service. That can continue and continue to the point where air travel to some of these island destinations should not just be two flights a day but perhaps six to eight flights per day.
This in turn gives passengers more options to travel and thus, provides better options for hotels to facilitate inbound tourist travel to/from the outer islands where international flights come in throughout the day.
Ultimately in the end, the local population benefits since they reap the benefits of flight frequency, and lower cost airfares. We’ve seen this occur in the Samoas and in other areas. The airlines are fundamental for economic growth and tourism.

7. There are plenty of barriers to entry—both practical and political. How were you able to get your airline approved as a scheduled carrier?
Yes there are barriers in any market, particularly as an air carrier coming in from the outside. However, Inter Island Airways (Fiji) Limited is a local Fiji airline company. We were able to obtain our approval as a scheduled carrier because of our business plan, targeted investment into Fiji, and the fact that we currently operate regional-type aircraft that we will utilize in Fiji.

8. What about hiring local personnel—pilots, mechanics, ground crew, etc. Any issues with human resources in Fiji?
Fiji has a good pool of trained pilots, mechanics and ground personnel. We do not foresee any issues with recruiting talent in Fiji. In the few areas where there may be issues, we would provide personnel from our American-based airline or from the US, Australia or New Zealand for a short-period of time until which time we have local talent and experience in pace. Our focus is for Inter Island Airways (Fiji) Limited be fully run and staffed by Fijians.

9. Inter Island Airways entry into Fiji will be the first new domestic carrier since 1980. What kind of impact do you believe it will have on Fiji’s economy?
I believe we will make a major impact to the Fiji economy, primarily in the travel and tourism area which is growing in Fiji. We see Inter Island Airways as being a contributor and major force in growing the travel sector and thus, growing the tourism in the outer islands.
The impact is not just on the airline side – it will impact hotel room occupancies, create opportunities for conferences to occur in the outer islands (and not just in Nadi) which brings tourist naturally.

10. A lot of the neighbor island airstrips are pretty rudimentary. Are you planning infrastructure improvements?
We plan to review the island airstrips, particularly Savusavu and Taveuni and look to make infrastructure improvements that will help the customer experience and provide the efficiencies needed for an airline to be successful. The type of investments we are talking about comprises of new terminal buildings, runway extensions, etc. We would look to contribute as a larger group consisting of the Hotel and Tourism operators and Government.

11. How will you differentiate your service from Pacific Sun?
Pacific Sun has and Air Pacific has a great history of providing good customer service to its passengers. We will obviously have to match and be above the current service offerings since “passengers expect it” from any airline.
You will just need to experience it once we are operational. I can say that there will be a big differentiation and it all starts with the customer experience – end-to-end.

12. There are a number of inbound passengers from Australia get into Nadi at around 5pm. Presumably a number of them would want to fly onward to a domestic destination but are forced to overnight it in Nadi because none of the air strips up north have landing lights. What can you do to rectify this?
Yes that is a good point. Our primary objective for every flight is that it operates safely under normal and abnormal conditions. Unfortunately as an airline, we cannot assume to be the primary force that will put in all the investment dollars to add runway lights to airports such as Taveuni and Savusavu, or navigation instrumentation (for ILS approach).
That is the responsibility of the Government and airport authorities (AFL). We will work with them to help improve airport runways and facilities so we can operate later during the day, and into a safe aerodrome.
Inter Island Airways will contribute some funding to improve some of the domestic airports; however it should not be viewed as the only source to drive these improvements since these are public facilities.

13. In the same vein, air travel to Taveuni is impacted because there are no fuel tanks at the airport. Presumably this would limit loads going over. Will you be in a position to address this issue as well?
There are opportunities in this area to work closely with the airport refuelers to establish fuel tanks at Taveuni and at Savusavu. We will work with them on a long-term plan that may require Inter Island Airways to make long-term commitments for the refuelers to fund such work. Ultimately, this benefits all air carriers and air plane operators in Fiji.

14. I’ve also heard that FJ pilots are reluctant to fly in the rain. If this is true, will your pilots be trained to handle all weather situations?
In the aviation field, weather is a key factor for many airplane crashes and fatality. Pilot error and aircraft mechanical failure are the others. With Weather, it is important that aircraft operating in Fiji and the island have up-to-date weather radar. Secondly, it is important that weather conditions are properly measured.
Observed and tracked at each airport destination since weather patterns can change within minutes.
Finally, it is import for many of these airports where weather conditions change frequently, to have proper airport navigation and instrumentation that will allow pilots to operate and land the aircraft on the runway even in abnormal weather conditions.
Our primary and utmost priority is to ensure that passengers arrive at their destination safely. Our pilots are trained to cancel flights or turn around their aircraft if they sense any abnormal weather conditions that would compromise the safety of the passengers and the aircraft. This is always the primary focus of any airline.
Our pilots in American Samoa are trained to fly under any weather conditions using the latest navigation aids and aircraft instruments to guide them safely to their destination. This is a stringent requirement of the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and how our sister airline in American Samoa is licensed.
We expect to uphold the same stringent requirements we follow with the FAA in our Fiji airline operations since we will be training all our Fiji pilots crew the same way, and all our pilots will have FAA certified licenses
All our aircraft will also have the required navigation equipment that the US FAA dictates for consistency purposes, and ease of training and movement of aircraft between our sister airline and Fiji airline

15. Seems like there’s a tremendous opportunity for you to bring in North Americans from Honolulu or the West Coast. Do you have plans in this department?
There is an opportunity to bring more North Americans from Honolulu and the West Coast to Fiji. Fiji is becoming more well known in the US as a “must go” destination. However, there is still the belief that Fiji is “too far”. I think the marketing should be around “Fiji is not far… it’s closer than Europe and Asia, Australia and New Zealand”.
The marketing ad should be “get on your flight in the evening and you wake up the next day in Fiji!”. We need to change the American thinking that Fiji is too far to travel for vacation – and the Caribbean is closer (when in fact, it takes just as long to get to the Caribbean from the west coast, versus Fiji).
For now, our focus is to do a great job and provide a great experience as a Fiji Domestic airline. We will then move into the regional market after our 1st year of operations which is challenging enough as it is.
The regional market and routes needs to be well established and working properly before we venture out of our core area of business to the next level.
Operating flights from Suva to Los Angeles and even Las Vegas (our corporate office/city) is not out of our sights and that would be something we would look into after 5 years. For now, we have to stay focused with Fiji. We will work with other international carriers that operate into Fiji, to code-share and coordinate flights for the first 4-5 years.

16. Would your new network be able to leverage more traffic from North America, possibly via Pago from Hawaiian Airlines?
Yes. Once our regional network becomes operational, our regional flights will be geared into connection flights out of Suva, Nadi and Pago Pago.

17. Air Pacific has an experienced sales team in North America. How are you going to reach the wholesalers in the US?
Yes Air Pacific is well established with the US wholesalers in the US. It is an area we will start to develop with US wholesalers in the coming months.

18. Anything else you’d like to discuss?
We have a lot of work ahead of us. However, our goals and objective is create a great Fijian Airline that will offer a unique passenger travel experience on day one.
Our goals are also to develop a long-term infrastructure and foundation to support the airline into the future. It always starts with the first step.

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