The ambitions of Emirates and Etihad were given a boost this week, with Fiji and the UAE signing their first bilateral air service agreement. Apparently, Emirates had requested an open skies agreement, but the Fijian government declined reasoning that they want the national carrier Air Pacific/Fiji Airways to first become ‘stronger’.

The Fijian government is seeking an ‘airline’ partnership, though what form this will take is still unclear. The new Fijian ambassador to the UAE, Mr Robin Nair confirming “we have spoken with Emirates and are also in talks with Etihad, they are very close to circumnavigating the globe”.

Mr Nair also noted “Fiji needs more airlines to bring tourists and business people, especially from newer markets, such as from the Middle East and Europe.”

Would it be viable? Perhaps, but geographic and economic factors often stymie carriers in there attempts to viably serve the South Pacific Island Countries.

A significant proportion of international traffic to Fiji already transfers through Australia, and the market is also substantially tourism based with little high-yield business traffic. During Virgin Australia’s transformation the carrier’s Boeing 777 services to Fiji were cut, John Borghetti reasoning “to be operating a three class widebody (B777) service to leisure markets like Fiji has to be a no-no”.

The South Pacific suffers from separation anxiety. A long way most of the world, at 14,000km a direct Abu Dhabi (AUH)/Dubai (DXB) – Nadi (NAN) service pushes the economical range limits of any aircraft except the Airbus A340-500 or 777-200LR. In addition, Emirates Chairman Tim Clark maintains it won’t operate to a location unless it can operate daily services.

But would there be enough traffic to sustain daily services? Tellingly, Air Pacific only operates to Auckland, Brisbane, and Sydney at a frequency of daily or higher. Even with the power of Emirates and Etihad’s back-end network feed, it may be difficult to fill an A340 or B777-200LR daily,  let alone a 400-seat Boeing 777-300ER.

Emirates serve the largely tourist markets using 2-class 278 seat A330s operating direct from Dubai to Cairns,
piggybacking to Nadi, or to Nadi via Singapore. Image: Peter Russel

Emirates will inevitably operate to Cairns, and could piggyback NAN services through the city. Its current second daily Brisbane service operating DXB – Singapore (SIN) – Brisbane (BNE) could have a Nadi leg added on. Alternatively, services could bypass Australia altogether, operating via SIN to collect connecting intra-Asian traffic feed.

In reality how would a Fijian Government ‘airline partnership’ take? Rumour is Emirates is close to announcing a comprehensive partnership with Qantas (perhaps even this week), but although Qantas and Air Pacific continue to code share, the carriers are no longer friends following a bitter political dispute over board executive influence. This may make a code share arrangement with a relaunched Fiji Airways difficult.

Etihad and Virgin Australia could also prove suitable suitors. Rather than operate its own aircraft to Fiji, Etihad could leverage its partnership with Virgin Australia with passengers connecting to Virgin services in Brisbane or Sydney. A relationship with Virgin could also be a boon for Fiji Airways. Coordination of services and traffic feed providing the relaunched carrier with better returns, and free aircraft to launch services to destinations outside the region. Perhaps even allowing Fiji Airways to return to Singapore, with services passengers connecting to onward Etihad services.

Will a middle eastern carrier serve the South Pacific? Definitely. It’s now just a matter of how and when than if.

Air Pacific will rebrand as Fiji Airways in 2013 with new Airbus A330s replacing its three Boeing 747-400s.