Air Niugini Eyes Axed Cathay Pacific Cairns – Hong Kong Route

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 MD, Alan Milne, has been in Cairns discussing the option, saying that the carrier saw opportunities on the route and had the capacity to serve it.

It’s a surprise move by the small airline from Papua New Guinea (known locally as PNG). To the dismay of many Cairns residents, Cathay Pacific is discontinuing their Cairns service in October 2019 after 25 years of servicing the route.

Air Niugini eyes axed Cathay Pacific Cairns-Hong Kong route
Air Niugini is the national carrier of Papua New Guinea. Photo: John via Flickr

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. 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. Not entirely au fait with Air Niugini? Here’s a quick refresh on Papua New Guinea’s national airline.

Who are Air Niugini ?

PNG’s national airline is based at Port Moresby’s Jacksons Airport. Air Niugini has 20 aircraft, the majority being Fokker jets that fly around to domestic destinations and down to Cairns. It has two 737s, one a 737-700 and the other a 737-800, as well as two 767-300ERs. The 767’s would be deployed on the Cairns – Hong Kong route.

Not even Air Niugini can’t escape the 737 MAX drama, as it has four on order.

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.

Air Niugini eyes axed Cathay Pacific Cairns-Hong Kong route
Only 90 minutes from Cairns, Port Moresby is another world entirely. Photo: eGuide Trvel via Flickr

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. This means people take to the skies in order to criss cross the country, as well as access the country’s many islands.

Air Niugini eyes axed Cathay Pacific Cairns - Hong Kong route
Air Niugini’s domestic destinations. Source: Air Niugini

The airline also flies internationally into South East Asia, Japan, Australia, Micronesia and Melanesia

Air Niugini eyes axed Cathay Pacific Cairns - Hong Kong route
Air Niugini international destinations. Source: AIr Niugini

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 services 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, albeit 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.

The decline of international services into Cairns

International flights into Cairns peaked in the early 1990’s 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 747’s come in.

In terms of passenger movements, Cairns is the seventh busiest airport in Australia, however the majority of passengers are flying domestic routes. International movements have been declining at Cairns Airport. The airport handles approximately 1% of Australia’s annual international passenger movements and there are no more 747’s.

Cathay Pacific’s departure follows Hong Kong Airlines discontinuing services into Cairns in 2018. In 2019, six airlines run international services in and out of the airport.

Air Niugini eyes axed Cathey PAcific Cairns-Hong Kong route
The current state of international movements at Cairns Airport

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 that China Southern may recommence flights later this year.

There has been some speculation in the last year that Emirates may commence flying into Cairns on a triangulated DXB-BNE-CNS-DXB route.

Additionally there are some international charters and FIFO operations into Cairns such as PNG Air’s regular flights up 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.