ANDREW CURRAN | Simple Flying | Edited
CAIRNS - Air Niugini is ready and willing to take over the Cairns – Hong Kong route according to a report in the Cairns Post.
Air Niugini’s managing director Alan Milne, who has been in Cairns discussing the option, said Air Niugini saw opportunities on the route and had the capacity to service it.
It’s a surprise move by the small airline from Papua New Guinea. To the dismay of many Cairns residents, Cathay Pacific is discontinuing its Cairns service in October after 25 years servicing the route.
International services into Cairns have been in decline for some years. But Air Niugini has been a Cairns stalwart, the north Queensland city long being a popular getaway spot for expats and mobile locals in Port Moresby.
While the Cathay Pacific service will be missed by Cairns residents, the economics of the service were not stacking up for the airline.
But there was no real expectation that Qantas would step up and service the route (although its low cost carrier offshoot Jetstar was always a possibility). Qantas has minimal interest in running international services from regional Australian airports.
But no-one really expected Air Niugini to offer to step into the breach.
PNG’s national airline is based at Port Moresby’s Jacksons Airport. Air Niugini has 20 aircraft, the majority being Fokker jets that fly to domestic destinations and down to Cairns.
It has a single Boeing 737-700 and 737-800 and two 767-300ERs. The 767’s would be deployed on the Cairns – Hong Kong route.
PNG is an interesting country. The tourism sector is small because it’s expensive, hard to access and infrastructure is lacking.
The fact that the capital, Port Moresby, is regularly ranked one of the world’s least liveable cities doesn’t help promote the country. On the plus side, there’s a decent new Hilton hotel in the capital.
The majority of Air Niugini’s flights are domestic. A mountain range runs across PNG’s spine and there are no road or rail crossings so people use flying to criss-cross the county as well as access the many islands.
The airline also flies internationally into South East Asia, Japan, Australia, Micronesia and Melanesia.
Air Niugini is notoriously expensive but it has a reasonable reputation in Australia for its service and reliability, notwithstanding last year’s runway overshoot into the ocean at Micronesia’s Chuuk airport.
It provides the majority of services between Australia and PNG including the only direct flights between Sydney and Port Moresby. Virgin Australia and Qantas 737’s also fly into Port Moresby from Brisbane.
On the 90-minute Port Moresby – Cairns route, Air Niugini offers jet services on Fokkers. Its competitor on the route, Qantas, runs Dash 8 turbo props.
Air Niugini has been a steady, long term carrier into Cairns, a fact that probably won’t go unnoticed amongst north Queensland locals as it lobbies to commence the Cairn – Hong Kong flights.
International flights into Cairns peaked in the early 1990s on the back of massive Japanese investment in far north Queensland. You could then sit on the balcony of your Cairns hotel in the early morning and watch a string of 747s come in.
In terms of passenger movements, Cairns is the seventh busiest airport in Australia, however the majority of passengers are flying domestic routes. The airport handles approximately 1% of Australia’s annual international passenger movements and there are no more 747s.
Cathay Pacific’s departure follows Hong Kong Airlines discontinuing services into Cairns in 2018.
China Southern was running thrice weekly flights into Cairns from Guangzhou but suspended them in April 2019 while the airline reviews some of its international routes. There is some hope the China Southern may recommence flights later this year.
Additionally there are some international charters and FIFO operations into Cairns such as PNG Air’s regular flights to Lihir Island to service Newcrest’s mining operations.
If Air Niugini think they can make a go of the Cairns – Hong Kong route, then good luck to them. It’s an interesting move by the airline as it will be its first point to point international service not utilising Port Moresby.
But Air Niugini is well known in Cairns and if it has the spare capacity, it might be a smart move.
Certainly, it’s a surprising one.