The Story Of Air Niugini

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Papua New Guinea’s national airline may not have much of a profile beyond its immediate region, but Air Niugini is approaching its 50th birthday and is a key carrier in its region. It’s an interesting airline from an interesting country.

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Air Niugini is one of the leading airlines in Melanesia. Photo: Air Niugini Newsroom

Even in 2020, Papua New Guinea remains one of the world’s toughest places to fly a plane. It’s all short dirt runways, mountains, lousy weather, sharp drops, clouds, and not much in the way of conveniences that modern aviators take for granted. That’s created a kind of resilience that’s crept into the DNA of Air Niugini.

Papua New Guinea is a tough place to run an airline

While Air Niugini connects Papua New Guinea with countries around Asia, Australiasia, and out into the Pacific, arguably its most crucial role is connecting the towns and cities of Papua New Guinea.

Papua New Guinea’s nearly nine million people live scattered across some 600 islands, including the main island of New Guinea. The vast majority of the population live in rural areas. There is no rail in Papua New Guinea, and roads outside the main urban centers are limited (there are still no roads running the length, breadth, or around the main island), so air links are important. Air Niugini flies to about 25 destinations around Papua New Guinea in addition to ten international destinations.

The airline has just 18 aircraft. The bulk of these are Fokker jets. Air Niugini has seven Fokker F100s and six F70s. They do most of the domestic flying for Air Nuigini as well as some short-haul international flying. There is also a De Havilland DHC-8-300 that goes to the smaller centers Air Niugini services. Four Boeings do the grunt work when it comes to international flying. There is a Boeing 737-700 and 737-800 in addition to two Boeing 767-300s.

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Air Niugini’s international destinations. Source: Air Niugini

None of these planes are young. The average age of the Air Niugini fleet is over 25 years. Despite that, Air Niugini has a decent safety record. Its sole blemish was an incident in 2018 when they lost a 737 after it landed in Chuuk Lagoon, short of the runway at Chuuk International Airport in Micronesia. That plane was P2-PXE. Ironically, it was the youngest jet in Air Niugini’s fleet, just 13 years old when it met its watery end.

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Air Niugini one of the few airlines offering a throne seat

But nearly 50 years of flying into bush runways on rugged mountaintops meant Air Niugini seemed to navigate the 2018 incident relatively well from a reputational perspective. The airline these days has a reputation for decent service but high fares.

Folks of a particular persuasion who like weird aircraft configurations are frequently keen for a flight in one of the throne seats on an Air Niugini 767. There are six of them in the 28 seat business class cabin; one behind the other down the center of the cabin. You can Fly like an old school potentate in a well-worn but comfy solo seat in a rattly old 767. You won’t get that kind of experience in a Q Suite. When flying gets back to normal, you’ll be able to jag one of the throne seats on Air Niugini flights from Hong Kong, Singapore, Manila, and Sydney.

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One of Air Niugini’s Fokker jets. Photo: Air Niugini Newsroom

Not getting any younger, but Air Niugini keeps on flying

There was a fleet modernization program in play. Air Niugini had four Boeing 737 MAXs on order, but delivery got pushed back to 2024 earlier this year. Considering how 2020 has panned out, that order may not happen at all. There was also a Boeing 787-8 on order, but that got canned in 2019. Until aviation gets its mojo back, the average age of Air Niugini’s fleet won’t be decreasing.

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Meanwhile, Air Niugini keeps on flying. It’s been knocked around by events of 2020, but after 50 years of flying in Papua New Guinea, it’s used to harsh flying conditions. The airline is maintaining domestic services and reduced international services. Air Niugini has kept on flying to Singapore, Cairns, and Brisbane throughout most of 2020. In doing so, a small airline with 18 planes has shown up some other much larger airlines in the region.

So next time you’re in the area, maybe looking to get from Nadi to Singapore, Cairns to Hong Kong, or Port Vila to Manila, a throne seat on Air Niugini could be just the ticket.

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