Canberra Airport marked the beginning of a new era today (21 July) with the arrival and departure of the first international flights since the pandemic.
Fiji Airways flight FJ951 from Nadi touched down about 1 pm, delivering its first load of passengers from the Pacific nation to the national capital, and in a quick turnaround took on about 130 Canberra souls for the inaugural four-hour flight out.
For Canberra Airport CEO Stephen Byron, the Fiji flight means the turbulence of COVID-19 is well and truly behind the airport. Singapore Airlines and Qatar Airways operated from Canberra prior to the pandemic, but both carriers have suspended services indefinitely.
“I never thought I’d get to have the first international flight twice, so this is the second time coming, and it’s even sweeter than the first time when we had Singapore Airlines flying,” he said.
“It’s a really, really exciting day to be back after three and a half years of COVID.”
Mr Byron said bookings were strong for the flights, which will start on Tuesdays and Fridays but come October will also take off on Sundays.
He said the first was always the hardest, but he expects flights across the Tasman within 12 months and is hopeful of regaining the Doha or Singapore hub or possibly both.
Chief Minister and Minister for Tourism Andrew Barr has also been pushing for direct flights between Canberra and New Zealand, and met with Wellington Airport earlier this week to discuss re-establishing the connection.
“We’d love an announcement between now and Christmas but let’s just see how time goes,” Mr Byron said.
“You’ve got to remember that last time, four weeks after the first ever Singapore flight four weeks later, Qatar announced they were flying daily and that was a game changer and helped Singapore Airlines to daily flights too.”
While Fiji is an attractive destination in the middle of Canberra winter, the link to Nadi also offers connections to North America, which was stimulating a deal of business traffic.
Mr Byron said Fiji Airways flew A380s to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver after a two-hour layover.
“It’s absolutely fantastic,” he said. “You comply with the Golden Rule, avoid Sydney Airport at all costs, and that’s what a direct service does,” he said.
In fact, today’s flight carried 10 passengers who were originally travelling to Fiji via Sydney with Qantas but a cancellation meant Canberra Airport was able to provide a direct route.
Fiji Airways Regional Manager John Nickel said forward bookings looked very healthy, with 7 per cent growth week on week.
“This is a positive indication that the route will be sustainable and healthy in the long term,” he said.
“The new direct service from Canberra will provide customers with enhanced connectivity and convenience, offering seamless access between the stunning islands of Fiji and the capital city of Australia.
“It also opens up a new transit point for the people of Canberra to travel onwards to other parts of the world including North America, Vancouver and East Asia.”
Mr Nickel said Canberra had always been on the airline’s radar and it was only a matter of time before a route was established.
Fiji High Commissioner David Kolitagane said the new route was a strategic partnership that connected Canberra to the hub of the Pacific and strengthens engagement with the region.
He said the route would contribute to the rebuilding of Fiji’s tourism industry after COVID and boost investment and the exchange of goods and services.
“We look forward to welcoming you all on our shores,” he said. “Fiji will open its arms and we invite you to experience the magic of Fiji and or the warmth of the people and hospitality.”
VisitCanberra Director Jonathan Kobus said it had been a clear commitment from the ACT Government to use aviation as a mechanism for creating international relationships for the social, cultural and economic benefit of Canberra.
“This flight is going to make a big difference in supporting the growth of our visitor economy,” he said.
Mr Barr said that re-establishing Canberra’s international aviation connections was a critical part of our Tourism 2030 Strategy to reach $4 billion in visitor expenditure by 2030.
“The direct connection to Fiji is opening up the North American market and we look forward to working with Fiji Airways and the Canberra Airport and our industry partners to make the most of this opportunity,” he said.
Fiji Airways flies Boeing 737 MAX 8 aircraft to Nadi. Return airfares on the new service can be had from $539 via fijiairways.com, with the introductory rate available until 31 July for select travel dates up to May 2024.