Out With The Old, In With The New - Air Pacific, Fiji Airways
It caught my surprise when the management of Air Pacific, the national carrier of Fiji, decided to rebrand the airline and return to the name last used in 1971 - Fiji Airways. The timing of the transition was made to coincide with the arrival of brand new A330-200s; which the airline had opted for seeing that the 787s were so badly delayed (and subsequently cancelled that order). Along with the new branding came a new livery based on traditional masi cloth designs (also known as tapa throughout other parts of the South Pacific) to replace the multi-coloured tail which has graced the skies over the Pacific for many years.
Fiji Airways operates jet services to Hong Kong, USA, Australia, New Zealand, Kiribati, Samoa, Tonga, Vanuatu, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. Fiji Airways’ subsidiary Pacific Sun flies island hopper services to Suva and other islands in Fiji. I have flown over the South Pacific on flights to the USA but I had never flown to any other Pacific island except for the South Island of New Zealand. This meant it’d also be my first flight on Air Pacific/Fiji Airways.
The arrival of the A330-200s meant that the ageing 747-400s were to be retired. I noticed that the last scheduled FJ 747-400 flight into Auckland was to be in June so I pondered and pondered before giving in and taking up the opportunity to fly this great plane out of Auckland for the last time. For my return, I had picked a flight on their new A330-200. I was keen to see what advancements had been made for this jump to the ‘bus. Ironically, my bus shelter was plastered with Fiji Airways advertising as they were pushing the rebranding from Air Pacific to Fiji Airways; which at the time felt like an omen for things to come!
Air Pacific was officially re-renamed Fiji Airways on the 27th June 2013. A big celebration was held in Fiji even though the Fiji Airways A330-200s had been flying for a few months by then. With this change came the new logo, uniforms, meals and all the bits and pieces served to the passengers. Another couple of days and I’d be trying them for myself.
29 June 2013
The day had arrived for the last scheduled service of an Air Pacific 747-400 to Auckland - time for me to go flying once again. Fiji Airways contracts Air New Zealand for the ground handling. A shot taken the weekend before shows huge queues for check in and the old signage.
Fast forward to this day and new signs are up along with more celebratory signage.
I was at the airport really early for the flight so that’s probably the reason for no queues being visible at check in. If I was there a bit later, the queue could have easily stretched out into the main walkway area. No worries for me either way as I had a ticket in Business Class today. The management decided to change the name back to Business Class from Tabua Class and also to Economy Class from Pacific Voyager. There was a short wait for a desk to become vacant but as soon as one freed up, I was next. The process was smooth as usual. Air New Zealand is extremely strict on the cabin baggage and weighs everyone's carryon bags; even if you’re travelling in premium cabins on other airlines. I don’t like this policy. Having passed that, a Fiji Airways labelled tag was placed on my backpack with the weight written on it (the weight was never checked again) and I was off upstairs to the observation deck for the arrival of my plane.
Fiji Airways uses the Qantas lounge in Auckland. Their lunch offering of beef bourguignon is rather nice. There was also time for a couple of drinks before heading to the gate. I’ve covered it before so there’s no need for me to talk about it again.
The gate area was packed. Winter time in New Zealand means that a lot of holiday goers want to head to the Pacific Islands for some warm weather. As I wanted to take some photos onboard before anyone else got on, I asked the (Air NZ) gate agent whether it was ok to board early seeing it was the last Air Pacific 744 flight out of Auckland. She kindly agreed and beeped my boarding pass through, allowing me to board with the many elderly folk needing assistance.
29 June 2013
Routing: Auckland - Nadi (AKL-NAN)
Airline: Air Pacific/Fiji Airways
Scheduled Time of Departure: 1315hrs
Actual Departure: 1326hrs (pushback), 1504hrs (2nd pushback) 1524hrs (rotate)
Scheduled Time of Arrival: 1605hrs
Flight time: 2 hrs 26 min
Aircraft: Boeing 747-400
Air Pacific has had two 747-400s for a period of just over 10 years.They are old birds which first flew in 1989. DQ-FJK is 7 months younger than sistership DQ-FJL and first flew in September 1989. They were purchased by Air Pacific from Singapore Airlines back in 2003, following their lease to Ansett Australia until their collapse in September 2001. Apparently Singapore Airlines was getting ready to lease this one to Air Nigeria in November 2002 but it eventually joined the Air Pacific fleet instead. DQ-FJL was withdrawn from service on the 19th July 2013, being sent to Tupelo, Mississippi, for disposal. Once the third and final Fiji Airways A330-200 arrives in November, FJK will receive the same fate.
Air Pacific configured them in a 28J/430Y configuration - a low yielding high density configuration fit for bringing the tourists to the Fijian Islands. These old birds haven’t had a retrofit for over 14 years but the fabric has been reupholstered. Pictures on the A.Net database show the exact same seat and the exact same IFE which Ansett Australia was using at the turn of the millennium.
It is one airline which has all Economy seating (3-3) on the upper deck. Not exactly the stairway to heaven compared to other airlines! Business Class fits nicely in the nose and just behind the first set of doors.
Today was my first time turning left at the door! I was warmly welcomed by the crew with many a “Bula!” before I asked the purser if I could take photos around the cabin. That was welcomed by the crew with open arms! The other thing which was definitely noticed was the Fijian music softly playing over the speakers, creating a really relaxed feel as we all stepped into Fiji Time.
All Business Class seats had little bottles of Fiji Water - the water which a lot of celebrities have become fond of (eg Two and a Half Men, The Big Bang Theory). Each seat also came standard with a blanket and pillow - both of which were new items consistent with the new Fiji Airways brand.
I took my chance to roam around the plane while it was still empty but eventually succumbed to the thought of that big seat waiting up the front for me. I talked to a few of the flight attendants and most seemed to know that it was the last scheduled 747-400 service of Air Pacific/Fiji Airways to Auckland. The ground staff from Air NZ on the other hand had no idea of this!
Although the Business Class seat is old, it is so comfortable! While testing out the seat before departure, I was so surprised at the amount of recline these seats had (160 degrees) that I apologised to the person in 2A! 1A on this bird was a great choice. 4 windows to myself and as much legroom as anyone could need. But of course, it was chosen for being 1A (I mean, who doesn’t want to sit in 1A, especially on a 747!) and no other reason. I was also surprised that it was electric and not done by a push of a button like the recline in Economy or Business in the 763/737. This must have been super flash a decade ago - and it was still wowing me.
The ancient IFE is about on par with Emirates’ system from 5 generations ago. In these seats, the PTV comes up from the middle armrest and a huge tray table is accessed from the outer armrest. They have a 12 channel looped video and it didn’t seem like all the channels were working. At least it had the one programme I wanted the most - the airshow map. One point Fiji Airways could improve on is the headset quality. Both Business and Economy passengers get the same poor quality headsets, as seen below.
The plane continued to fill and I was settled in my seat. Pre departure drinks came around with a choice of orange juice or sparkling wine. As expected, new glasses featuring the masi patterned motif were used - they were strikingly similar in shape to what Cathay serves in its Business Class cabin. A bit of a shame - they’ve done away with colourful drink coasters and introduced far thinner things. Hot towels were passed out next and they were thick branded cloths. Very nice! Soon after, they were around with the menus.
Pushback wasn’t far away. When we eventually did push, for some reason we didn’t push back all the way to the taxiway centerline and the tow truck was still attached some 5-10 minutes later. Something had gone wrong. then the pilot came across the PA telling us that there was a technical problem with the wheels and that ‘one wheel was spinning the other way than it is supposed to’.. That really confused me. Half an hour later, we were towed back to the gate, where the seatbelt sign was finally switched off and were told to remain on board. An expected departure time was set for 3pm - this flight was certainly in Fiji Time! Nothing worried me at all.. It meant enjoying my seat in 1A for much longer than expected. In fact, the time spent on the ground matched the time spent in the air!
Together, the three flight attendants in the Business Class cabin took their time to introduce themselves to each and every Business Class passenger and welcomed us onboard. That added a great touch to the service - something I’d never seen before and something you might expect from a First Class cabin.
The FAs kept good tabs on the Business Class customers, handing out snacks and drinks as expected. They also found time to take lunch orders while chatting to the passengers.
There is a new inflight magazine named Fiji time. A bit thin on content, it suffices with information about the airline’s history, routes and fleet.
Eventually after a while of relaxing in my seat, we were ready for departure. Apparently they did a temporary fix and we were to taxi and turn slower than usual. It didn’t really feel like we taxied any slower than usual. Because we were departing to the west out of Auckland, I had negotiated a seat change in order to capture the city on our way north. The light load in Business made this possible. It definitely paid off as there were stunning views over the city on this beautiful day!
I resettled into 1A after the seatbelt sign had been turned off. The great friendly Fijian service continued as we headed to warmer climates. Half an hour into the flight and lunch was served. I couldn’t believe how quiet it was in 1A.. It was amazing. I just hope I get another flight in the nose of a 747 again in the future!
As recommended by the FA, I had chosen the chicken curry with coconut and coriander, cumin and pea rice, tossed beans with capsicum, sautéed tomato and onions. It was accompanied by roti/parratha, a salad and some bread. It was a very nice tasting meal and not too spicy - something I was a little worried about!
Dessert followed shortly after lunch. The cappuccino ice cream was a little on the small side but it was a nice finish to the meal.
With the tray table cleared, it was time for a bit more of a stretch and some relaxation in the comfortable seat.
I got a bit of rest as the delay and adrenalin had taken its toll on me! The flight wasn’t long enough - I wish I could have flown all the way to LAX in that seat later that night! And soon enough, it was time to descend into Nadi. We touched down not long after on Runway 02. They like to use Runway 02 for landings and Runway 20 for departures due to the hills in the north.
Here’s a video of the landing. Listen closely enough and you will hear the wonderful relaxing Fijian music playing over the PA.
Nadi Airport is probably famous for its open air walkways but they also have airbridges to the planes! It makes for an interesting combination! It gives that false sense of security that you’re inside once you disembark onto the airbridge and then suddenly you’re outside! I suppose it’s still under cover. Anyway, it was a lovely evening and I got out onto the walkway as the light was fading to capture this wonderful shot of both 747s - a sight never to be seen again.
The disadvantage of being a photographer is that you want to get a good shot. In the meantime, a horde of Economy passengers scuttle past you to line up for immigration. I still beat the majority and I also had priority baggage so it ended up being ok. Being in Fiji Time, things took a little while to process (immigration and bags) but there was no rush and eventually I was off to my accommodation for the night.
Time for a few hours’ sleep before the morning flight home!
30 June 2013
I set the alarm earlier than I needed to see if I could capture a couple of arrivals with some sort of light. One plane was on time and the other was on Fiji Time, rescheduled until late evening. And that ended my first attempt at spotting in Fiji... Rather unsuccessful! I suppose I need to go back sometime!
It was then time to check in and head to the airport, on the other side of the runway.
As you might have imagined, Nadi Airport’s terminal is nothing special or new. It does the job for processing passengers in modest comfort under shelter. There were long queues this morning as you’d expect for the outbound wave, mainly comprising of a 744 to SYD and an A332 to AKL. Each flight had 4 check in counters open. Once I got to the front, the check in process itself was not on Fiji Time; in fact it must have been one of the quickest check ins I’d ever had! The check in lady was so efficient that it took her what seemed like less than 20 seconds to check me in and hand me my boarding pass. Maybe having my seat pre-assigned made things much easier - I had rang Air Pacific up to reserve my seat in order to get good shots of the engine and wing.
After experiencing that speedy check in, it was back to Fiji Time as a super long immigration queue waited to the side of check in. There were many restless kids too though it was expected seeing that the time was still around 7am. There was still a lot of time to kill once through immigration.. And not a lot to do either! The area comprises of a few duty free shops, a huge seated area and a couple of eateries. Boy did they need all those seats.. The place was rather full!
Eventually, it was closing in on boarding time and a queue formed. I had nothing better to do than to join the line and get onboard for my flight home. There was no announcement and people started heading outside!
30 June 2013
Routing: Nadi - Auckland (NAN-AKL)
Airline: Fiji Airways
Scheduled Time of Departure: 0845hrs
Actual Departure: 0905hrs (pushback), 0914hrs (rotate)
Scheduled Time of Arrival: 1145hrs
Flight time: 2 hrs 50 min
Aircraft: Airbus A330-200
Air Pacific ordered the 3 A330-200s while at the same time cancelling their order for 787-8s due to the massive delays. They are in the process of retiring the 747 fleet and will complete that when they take delivery of the third A330 in November. DQ-FJT was the first A330-200 delivered to Fiji Airways (Mid March 2013) and was the first plane to carry the new Fiji Airways livery. They would feature improved Business Class seats and a 2-4-2 configuration in Economy. It shuffles in a new era for the airline, where frequency seems to be the way forward.
There was a nice walk outside to the plane in the morning sun as I would bid farewell to the warm weather for a few months!
Down the airbridge I went until I reached the A330 and I was met with warm welcomes once again. One FA saw my camera and told me I could take as many pictures as I wanted! That’s the style, kudos to you for allowing me to take photos!
As you can see below, the Business Class section is fresh and it looks much like a product you’d expect for flying long haul these days compared to the deep recliner on the 744s. In fact, they look identical to the Business Class in the A330s of Singapore Airlines and Virgin Australia. However, they are not lie flat seats as you’d expect - they are extra deep recliner seats if you call the 744 J seat a deep recliner. I have no pictures of it because I wasn’t flying Business but its easily searchable. They look very comfortable for relaxing in but I’m not too sure about sleeping in that seat.
Anyway, enough on the seat I didn’t fly on and time to head towards the back to where I was. I took a step into the bright Economy cabin. It all looked a bit sterile to me, although the theme was to be of earthy and sandy tones. I’d prefer the blue of Air Tahiti to symbolise the ocean. The layout is a standard 8 abreast 2-4-2 and comes with 32” of legroom.
The seat is comfortable - something I wouldn’t mind spending a long haul flight in. It has a 7.5” recline which is also nice.
Fiji Airways installed the Panasonic eX2 IFE, dubbed Fiji Time; sharing a name with their inflight magazine. For the A330 flights from NAN to HKG and LAX, all IFE content is available. However for the shorter flights in Economy, some content is free and strangely enough, there’s a whole range of TV shows and movies which the passenger must pay an extra FJD10 (~USD5) to unlock the “Bula Bundle” for the rest of the flight. You’d just assume they’d put that amount into the ticket price. Tickets on Fiji Airways to the Islands are relatively expensive too and one could simply book Air New Zealand for around the same price and get a meal and movies. The other thing is that you don’t realise this until you’re actually on the plane. There was nothing while booking saying that I had to pay for content.. Mind you, I booked through the Air Pacific website. But by making a dummy booking on the new website, I didn’t see anything saying whether not you have to pay for some IFE content - they really should let people know as many travellers don’t like these ancillary costs. You had to forage through the website to find any such information regarding paying for the majority of content. In saying that, they have a very good section on the history of the airline and what the patterns used on the tail mean.
At the scheduled departure time, a FA made an announcement that the plane needed to be refueled. Just to make sure we were still on Fiji Time and the holiday hadn’t quite finished! Pushback occurred 20 minutes later. The clever design of the airport minimises taxi times when normal operations are underway.. That is Runway 02 landings and Runway 20 departures. The terminal is very close to the threshold of Runway 20. We snuck in front of the 744 bound for SYD and just like that, we were off. My shortest non-transfer stay in a country was over!
A quarter of an hour after takeoff, the FAs were up handing out towelettes.
Another 20 minutes later, the snack (not substantial enough to really be called breakfast) was served. It comprised of a hot wrap with the filling of egg which looked like an omelette and something else inside it to the consistency and taste of steamed dumpling pastry. In the box, there was a small tub of yoghurt, juice and a biscuit. A big change from the day before, that’s for sure!
It was quite average but I ate it all seeing I was hungry and the meal was by no means inedible. A drinks trolley followed shortly after with Fiji Water, tea and coffee. I asked for a Coke and was frustrated by the response of either an ignorant look or we don’t have it look. I couldn’t decipher what that look was and I settled with water. It made me a bit confused as I’m sure I saw a drinks trolley at the back when I went for a wander around the cabin.
I headed back to my seat for a bit of a snooze and soon enough, we were flying along the coast of Northland.
And not long after, we were already making our approach into Auckland.
We taxied into Gate 2, the gate I had set out from the day earlier. Call that a quick round trip!
Upon disembarking, I asked if I could visit the cockpit. The lovely flight attendant was extremely apologetic when she told me that they were busy as there was training going on and this was still a relatively new aircraft type. I took the time to take a couple more snaps of the Business cabin before I was off and back home!
Air Pacific has successfully rebranded itself into Fiji Airways. With the cabin and livery getting a refresh, the great staff remain with the airline, providing a warm hospitality the Pacific Islands should be proud of. Passengers seem to be embracing the new product on the A330 but us enthusiasts along with some of the flight attendants I talked to are sad to see the 747 disappear. With one down, the end is inevitable. But the move to more efficient aircraft and higher frequencies might just help them perform better than in the past. I certainly hope to see them flying in many years time - it’d be such a shame to lose an airline which has served the South Pacific for many decades. With little tweaks here and there, I’m sure the airline can make it to being a decent choice for trans Pacific air travel.