This is the second of a three part interview with Barney Sene, founder of Inter Island Airways (Fiji) Ltd, Fiji's new domestic carrier.
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 2 flights a day but perhaps 6-8 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
When do you plan to start service in Nausori? What’s the timetable for Nadi?
We are looking at starting air service out of Nausori and Nadi in April 2013. A lot is dependent on us completing our infrastructure such as a new hangar and office facilities in Nausori. However, at this time, we believe we will meet our timelines to have our new hangar and office facilities ready before April 2013.
What kind of frequency of service will you have to Vanua Levu, Taveuni and Kadavu?
Our approved licenses specify the minimum and maximum number of flights we plan to offer between Suva and Nadi, to Labasa, Savusavu, Taveuni and Kadavu. For Taveuni, we plan to offer at least 2 flights per day from Suva, and from Nadi to start. This will eventually increase. To Kadavu, we will initially start with 1 flight per day from Suva and from Nadi and eventually increase the number of flights with demand. In the future, I would foresee at least 4-6 flights to Taveuni Suva, and from Nadi as consistent demand becomes more mature and established. With Kadavu, I also see 2-3 flights per day from Suva, as well as from Nadi as we become more established, and we being to work with the hotel operators and inbound operators overseas to coordinate travel and bookings.
There are a number of inbound passengers from Australia get into Nadi at around 5 pm. 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.
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.
Barney Sene serves as President & Chief Executive Officer for Aviana Airways Corporation and it’s subsidiary, Inter Island Airways (Fiji) Limited. Educated in California, with a B.S. Degree in Computer Science and a EE from California State University, Long Beach, he has over 30 years of technical and business experience.
Prior to founding Aviana Airways, Sene served as an executive with an ecclectic mix of companies including Samoa Technologies (a telecom and media company) Ingram Micro Inc.; (a Fortune 100 technology distribution company); WellPoint, one of the largest health benefits companies in the United States GE Power Systems, (a unit of General Electric) and DHL Airways, Inc.
Sene co-founded Inter Island Airways, Inc., a US commuter airline serving Samoa and American Samoa and Inter Island Airways (Fiji) Limited.