#81 THE STRENGTH OF BRAND FIJI

Back to the future: the last Fiji Airways painted plane , a HS 748 ( Photo: Air Paciic)

Air Pacific has reached into its past to define its future with the decision to re-brand itself as Fiji Airways more than 40-years after it jettisoned the name. The airline’s new flagship aircraft –three Airbus A330-200s – will be emblazoned with the back-to-the-future moniker when they begin operating across the network in just over a year. The state-of-the art A330 will be the first Fiji Airways aircraft to carry the name since 1971, when the airline’s Hawker Siddeley 748 turbo-props were painted over with the Air Pacific “Flying Fish” livery.

Only Fijians approaching their own half-century will be able to recall a Fiji Airways plane lumbering across island skies. So why go back to it? Why abandon an established brand as familiar in the skies over Hong Kong as it is over Sydney and Los Angeles? According to the airline, the switch has come only after months of exhaustive market research, including the use of focus groups. And the main reason is the strength of Brand Fiji – the appeal of that nice four-letter word starting with F for consumers around the world.

Fiji: A potent global brand

The hope is that Fiji Airways will soon join Fiji Water as an iconic global brand, instantly recognisable and unambiguously from the Fiji Islands rather than some generic Pacific destination, as the present name implies. Forty years ago – strangely enough – Fiji Airways seemed rather parochial and the name Air Pacific was embraced with alacrity. It was the symbol of a new era of regional cooperation – “strength in unity” – that marked the end of the colonial age.  Up to seven regional governments became shareholders and four – Kiribati, Tonga, Nauru and Samoa – retain small holdings. But some of these eventually wanted airlines of their own – most of which failed – and the Fiji Government was left as Air Pacific’s dominant shareholder. It strongly supports the airline’s American CEO, Dave Pflieger, in his comprehensive overhaul of the airline’s operations to remain competitive. This includes buying the three new fuel-efficient Airbuses to replace two leased gas- guzzling 747s. Plus, of course, the name change. So Fiji Airways it is.

But is it a good idea to name an airline after a country with a record of instability? Some industry observers wonder. Fiji was “the way the world should be” before 1987 and the first of four coups that its political class, in particular, is still trying to work through. Yet for all the country’s vicissitudes, its international image has been remarkably resilient, not least because those who visit Fiji invariably find that politics doesn’t get in the way of a good time. To say that Fiji is uncommonly “friendly” is so much a part of the country’s branding that it’s now something of a cliché. But the high level of repeat business it gets speaks of something more – genuine bonds of affection forged between its visitors and the locals, sometimes over many years. That bond is so resilient in the case of Australians and New Zealanders that tens of thousands of them ignore their government’s coup-related sanctions against Fiji and keep coming in record numbers.

The first Fiji Airways plane: A De Havilland Dragon Rapide (Photo: Air Pacific)

These are what the tourism boffins describe as “mature markets” – extremely valuable but with relatively limited scope for growth. The name change to Fiji Airways is based on research that shows many potential fliers don’t necessarily link Air Pacific with Fiji – seeing it more as a generic regional entity. The name “Fiji” might be on the tail of existing aircraft but it’s not in the schedules and – as the research tells it – not lodged firmly enough in the minds of the wider traveling public who Dave Pflieger and his team desperately want to attract to stay afloat.

Like many smaller airlines the world over, Air Pacific is under intense market pressure, especially against its cut-throat competitors on the Australian route – Jetstar and Virgin. Jetstar’s presence has been especially irksome, for it’s the low-cost offshoot of Air Pacific’s minority shareholder, Qantas. Time was when Qantas was willing to pull its own aircraft out of Fiji and put its passengers on code-shared Air Pacific flights. It still does. But then –perversely – it sent in Jetstar to compete against Air Pacific – a full service airline it partly owns. Now a Qantas frequent flier can choose either airline and Jetstar often has a cheaper fare. So if you want to know why relations between Air Pacific’s majority owner -the Fiji Government – and Qantas aren’t exactly friendly, you needn’t look much further. In local terms, it’s a bit like a Suva Market vendor putting in his girlfriend to compete with his wife on an adjacent stall. The Fiji Government not unreasonably thinks that despite its seats on Air Pacific’s board, Qantas is intent on eventually driving it to the wall.

Team Pfleiger: Air Pacific's CEO ( Photo: Air Pacific)

Team Pflieger: Air Pacific's CEO

For its part, Qantas wants out and is trying to get the Fiji Government to buy its 46 per cent share – presumably to compete with gloves off in an all-out brawl. But Tourism Minister Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum says Qantas’s asking price is too much and has accused the Flying Kangaroo of “being cute”. Things being the way they are in the airline business, there’s no other buyer on the horizon so the minister can presumably afford to wait. The irony, of course, is that the more Jetstar encroaches on Air Pacific’s business, the less the Qantas stake is likely to be worth. It evidently didn’t occur to Qantas to sell out before it put Jetstar on the Nadi route.

It’s a relationship almost as old as Air Pacific itself. Qantas first bought into Fiji Airways in 1958, adding its lustre to the local brand and strongly supporting it through the succeeding decades. But just as the Australian Government has become alienated from Fiji since Frank Bainimarama’s coup of 2006, so has the Flying Kangaroo. The two main shareholders in Air Pacific are now at loggerheads, with Qantas resentful that Fiji recently ended its effective right of veto on the local board. While Aiyaz Sayed Khaiyum cast this as Fiji asserting its legitimate sovereign right to control its own airline, Qantas muttered about a unilateral takeover that would damage future foreign investment in Fiji.

The new Airbus A330-200 ( Photo: Air Pacific)

Air Pacific’s local critics are scornful of the name change, arguing that it’s merely a cosmetic makeover that doesn’t address their fundamental concerns. They’ve taken to Facebook with a range of complaints, including chronic delays, a general deterioration in the standards of service and penny pinching when it comes to catering. Grubsheet can attest to the fact that Air Pacific meals leave a lot to be desired. Yet undoubtedly that’s what happens when an airline tries to maintain “full service” against competitors who, in the case of Jetstar, even charge for water. Dave Pflieger is promising to gradually address these complaints as part of his overall strategy to revive the airline. Air Pacific/Fiji Airways passengers will say amen to that.

A De Havilland Heron : Backbone of the fleet in the 1950s and 60s (Photo: Air Pacific)

Since it was launched in 1951 as Katafaga Estates by the pioneering Australian aviator, Harold Gatty, the national airline has grown from a single Dragon Rapide into a vital lifeline for Fiji’s tourist industry, bringing in visitors by the plane-load from the far reaches of the Asia Pacific. It’s central to the well being of the national economy and every possible step needs to be taken to keep it competitive and afloat. If that involves becoming a low cost carrier itself – and charging its passengers extra for additional services and food – then so be it. Because the alternative is to be held hostage to foreign carriers who – as Fiji witnessed to its cost in 1987 –simply fly off and leave the country stranded whenever the going gets tough. Small airlines are endangered species and Air Pacific clearly has to do a lot more to earn the loyalty of its local customers. But they, in turn, need to embrace the new Fiji Airways in the same way they embrace those other Flying Fijians – the national rugby team – as symbols of national pride and a will to succeed.

 This article has subsequently appeared in Pacific Scoop NZ.