70 Years & Still Going Strong: A History of Fiji Airways

In a part of the world where oceans are big, distances are great, and islands are sparsely populated, Fiji Airways is a significant airline. In addition to connecting key cities around the Pacific rim to Nadi, Fiji Airways’ 13 planes connect multiple small South Pacific nations to the rest of the world.

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An early Fiji Airways flight and forerunner to today’s modern planes. Photo: Fiji Airways

Although its origins can be traced back to the early 1930s, the first commercial Fiji Airways flight occurred in 1951 – 70 years ago. The founder of Fiji Airways was a contemporary and friend of Charles Lindbergh. Harold Gatty was a Tasmanian who made a name for himself circumnavigating the globe in eight days in 1931 in a Graf Zeppelin airship.

An interesting character behind the start of Fiji Airways

Gatty built a reputation as a celestial navigator and went on to work as Pan American’s Australasia’s representative. During WWII, he put his navigation knowledge to good use, developing a survival guide for airmen if their planes went down in the South Pacific.

After WWII, Gatty moved to Fiji and went on to found Fiji Airways using de Havilland Dragon Rapide and de Havilland Australia DHA-3 Drover planes. On September 1, 1951, a seven-seater Dragon Rapide flew from Suva to Drasa Airport near Lautoka.

Harold Gatty died in 1958, and Qantas bought the airline. The Australian airline has maintained an interest in Fiji Airways ever since. Qantas set to work building Fiji Airways into a kind of pan-South Pacific regional airline with ownership shared between multiple island nations.

This strategy was initially relatively successful. Tonga, Western Samoa, Nauru, Kiribati, and the Solomon Islands all took stakes in the 1960s alongside the Fijian Government, Qantas, Air New Zealand, and BOAC.

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The founder of Fiji Airways, Harold Gatty (right). Photo: Fiji Airways

A rebrand to Air Pacific as regional push collapses

At the time, Fiji (along with several other South Pacific islands) was still a British dependency. But Fiji and its neighboring nations threw off those shackles in the early 1970s. One of the consequences was the push for a regional South Pacific airline spluttered out. After all, what self-respecting, freshly minted independent nation doesn’t want their own airline?

All those little vanity airlines have mostly since faded out. Only Fiji Airways survived. But as a result of the disintegration of the regional airline concept, the Fijian Government took a controlling interest in Fiji Airways, renamed it Air Pacific, and have maintained that interest ever since.

In 1973, Air Pacific launched its first international route, starting flights to Brisbane. The Air Pacific era also saw the airline dragged into the jet ago. In the 1970s, Air Pacific operated a pair of BAC 1-11 Series 400 aircraft.

In the 1980s, Boeings began entering the fleet, beginning with a Boeing 737-200 in 1981 and seeing three Boeing 747s (a pair of 747-200s and one 747-100) enter late in the decade. Also arriving in the 1980s were ATR 42s and a sole McDonnell Douglas DC-10-30.

It was a disparate collection of planes, reflecting the airline’s ambitions of serving both its immediate neighborhood and destinations further afield. A big break for Air Pacific was launching flights to Honolulu in 1983, thereby establishing a beachhead in the United States.

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One of the first Air Pacific Boeing 747-200s. Photo: Contri via Wikimedia Commons

Air Pacific bets big on Boeing aircraft

Air Pacific’s fleet grew substantially in the late 1980s and the first half of the 1990s.  Between 1998 and 1996, eleven news planes landed at Nadi. That’s a lot of new arrivals for a relatively small airline.

Boeing 747s came and went as Air Pacific expanded its international flying. Between 1985 and 2013, Air Pacific/Fiji Airways operated 11 of the jumbos. Interestingly, they never held onto them for long. Generally, a new jumbo would come in on a lease to replace one at the end of its lease. Most came from Qantas.

The two longest-lasting 747s at Air Pacific/Fiji Airways were a pair of 747-400s that arrived in 2003 and stayed with the airline for a decade until it ceased 747 operations altogether in 2013. Those two jets were DQ-FJK and DQ-FJK, which were owned by Singapore Airlines and previously saw service with Ansett Australia before that airline’s inglorious collapse.

The late 80s / early 90s period was also a time when several Boeing 737s and 767s entered service with Air Pacific. Alongside the 747, the two smaller Boeings would go on to become the mainstays of the Air Pacific fleet. ATR 42 turboprops serviced the smaller islands around Fiji.

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An Air Pacific Boeing 767-300 in Sydney in the 1990s. Photo: Ken Fielding via Wikimedia Commons

Renamed back to Fiji Airways and dragged into the modern flying era

That Boeing-based fleet serviced Air Pacific’s needs for almost a generation. It wasn’t until well into the 2000s that significant changed occurred again at Air Pacific. In 2007, Air Pacific bought out a small local competitor called Pacific Sun.

That little airline would eventually form the nucleus of Fiji Airways’ contemporary domestic flight operations under the Fiji Link brand. In 2012, Air Pacific reverted to its original name, Fiji Airways, ostensibly to better reflect the airlines’ origins and facilitate marketing.

At the same time, domestic and international operations were split. Fiji Link looked after Fijian flights while the freshly rebranded Fiji Airways took care of international flying. Concurrently, Fiji Airways began a fleet modernization program, ordering Boeing Dreamliners and, for the first time, doing business with Airbus. Fiji Airways ordered Airbus a handful of A330-200s and would later order the up-to-the-minute A350-900s.

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Fiji Airways’ new pride and joy, the Airbus A350-900. Photo: Airbus

Those plane orders hauled Fiji Airways into the present era. Today’s fleet comprises seven Boeing 737s (including five MAX 8s), three A330-200s, a single A330-300, and a pair of A350-900s. Those supremely comfortable but rather inefficient Boeing 767s dropped off the radar in 2012.

Fiji Airways hasn’t had an easy time of it lately. Since 2020, most flights have been suspended, aircraft were grounded, and around half the airlines’ employees laid off. As a small island nation, Fiji has felt the ramifications of the depressed airline industry more than most.

But brighter days are ahead. Fiji is reopening its borders later this year, and Fiji Airways is resuming flights. The high glossy planes will come out of storage, get dusted off, and take to the air again. As Fiji Airways marks 70 years of flying, that’s probably the best present going around.

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