The Pacific islands have a proud history of colourful flag carriers, however the majority of the region’s airlines have struggled with their remoteness, the limited investment capability of their home nations and competition from Australia and New Zealand. Polynesian Airlines’ history illustrates all three aspects during its history.
Samoa (known as Western Samoa from independence in 1962 until July 4, 1997) is a small relatively remote island nation set in the Pacific ocean northeast of Fiji, Tonga and to the far South New Zealand. Geographically it consists of two main and eight smaller islands and in 2016 still had a population of under 200,000 people. The main island of Upolu has ¾ of the population including the capital city of Apia.
Given its relative isolation is naturally makes sense for Samoa to have decent air links and Polynesian Airlines was formed in 1959 by the Australian aviator Reginald Barnewall. The first service was a daily connection between Apia and Pago Pago, in neighbouring American Samoa, using a Percival Prince. In 1964 service was extended to Fiji, Tonga and Wallis Island using the first Polynesian registered airliner 5W-FAA – a demilitarised ex-National Airways Corp Douglas C-47B. Another pair of C-47s were also added, although both were written off (one in 1966 and the other in 1970).
The airline was acquired by the Western Samoan government in 1971 and along with the purchase came a pair of new Hawker Siddeley HS-748s (5W-FAN and FAO) in January 1972. Expansion continued with flights to Niue and Rarotonga in 1977, extending to Auckland and Tahiti the following year.
The latter routes inaugurated Polynesian’s first jet service using a leased 737-200. This aircraft was replaced in 1981 by a new example bought direct from Boeing, registered 5W-PAL and named ‘Sina’. Unfortunately this expansion into a more competitive environment soon brought financial trouble and the crisis led to a 5 year management agreement with Ansett of Australia.
The agreement signalled the arrival of Ansett equipment like VH-CZM (an Ansett 737-200 see below). This aircraft operated for both Polynesian and Air Vanuatu, the latter being another airline Ansett had a stake in which operated a weekly Port-Vila - Auckland route. Joint flights were also opened to Sydney starting in Apia and stopping in Port Vila.
The Ansett management agreement was extended for a further decade in 1987 and at this time an ex-Ansett 727 arrived and was painted with Polynesian livery on one side and Cook Islands International livery on the other. This joint operation continued until May 1990 when the aircraft became totally Polynesian operated and was named 'Fuatino'.
Following the acquisition of its own authorisation to fly internationally Ansett abruptly withdrew from the management agreement in 1991. The 727 was returned the following year and replaced by a pair of 737-300s leased from ILFC.
The carrier expanded with two non-stop services to Honolulu and Los Angeles respectively, which began in May 1993. Equipment came in the form of a pair of 767s leased from Air Canada and another, acquired from Kuwait Airways. One of the Air Canada aircraft was a 767-200 operated in a hybrid scheme but both the other AC plane (a 767-333ER) and the ex-Kuwaiti 767-269ER wore full Polynesian colours.
There was also expansion Southwards with direct services to Sydney and Auckland plus a route to Sydney via Tonga. One of the Auckland services was also extended on to Melbourne. This was a clear challenge to the traditional gateways of Pape’ete and Nadi but it was also incredibly expensive. The airline could not afford the expense required to market these routes and without partners it was doomed to failure.
The cost to the airline was great and it was technically insolvent by mid-1994, by which time it had burnt through $30 million. Only government loan guarantees saved the airline, which nonetheless but an intolerable strain on the finances of the entire country. This would have a continuing impact on Samoa for the rest of the 1990s as it led to decreased spending on education and health.
The management team were sacked and the government took over the debt (which was 165 of GDP by 1994/95). Even by 2001 the government needed to a lot 3% of GDP to keep the airline running. An agreement with Air New Zealand was signed in 1995 and by the end of the year the jet fleet was back to just a single 737-300. The 737 kept up an international service to Sydney, with a refueling stop in Auckland. The airline code-shared with Air New Zealand on a weekly Apia-Honolulu service.
With a return to a smaller size the airline was profitable during the late 90s and for example in 1999 recorded a $1.3 million profit on revenues of $27 million. Flush with some success the airline once again looked for longer ranged equipment and ordered a pair of new 737-8Q8s from ILFC. The first, 5W-SAM, joined the fleet in November 2000 with the second, 5W-SAO, arriving in September 2001. SAO allowed the replacement of the 737-300, which joined Qantas.
The new 737-800s were fitted with 12 business class and 142 economy seats and allowed for the reinstatement of service to Honolulu from Apia. They also allowed for direct service to Sydney and a new route to Wellington. I was lucky enough to see 5W-SAO at Welly myself when I was travelling around New Zealand in 2002. Once again however the new aircraft do not appear to have aided profitability (the IMF called it an 'ill-devised expansion') while the 9/11 attacks damaged regional tourism. The airline once again found itself in trouble. The original 737-800, 5W-SAM, left the fleet in May 2003.
In December 2004 a plan was announced to restructure the airline recommending that Virgin Blue be chosen as the preferred partner for a new joint venture airline to takeover the international routes leaving Polynesian Airlines with only regional turboprop services. This duly came to pass and Polynesian Blue began operations in 2005.
That was not the end of Polynesian however and the carrier continued to operate with a single DHC-8 and a trio of DHC-6 Twin Otters. Polynesian Blue was renamed Virgin Samoa in 2011 but in 2017 it was closed down by the Samoan government and once again international operations switched back to the flag carrier. Renamed Samoa Airways the airline once again flies a single 737-800 to Auckland, Sydney and Brisbane. Unfortunately it's sole 737 MAX-9 remains grounded awaiting the types eventual recertification but throughout its history Polynesian Airlines has striven to make Samoa proud of itself and to say Talofa to travellers everywhere.
I'm Richard Stretton: a fan of classic airliners and airlines who enjoys exploring their history through my collection of die-cast airliners. If you enjoy the site please donate whatever you can to help keep it running: