Solomon Airlines hopes its new Sydney service due to begin in June will help boost tourist arrivals to Honiara from Australia and beyond.
Sydney is the carrier’s second Australian port and builds on its current four times a week service between Brisbane and Honiara.
While it competes with Virgin Australia on the Brisbane route, Solomon Airlines will be the only airline offering direct flights from the Solomon Islands to Sydney, which it last served in 2001.
From June 1, Solomon Airlines flight IE 710 – operated by the airline’s Airbus A320 – from Honiara lands in Sydney at 1830 local time on Monday, with the return service the IE711 departing the NSW capital at 0930 on Tuesday.
Solomon Airlines general manager of operations and commercial Gus Kraus says the Sydney flights have been timed to facilitate connections to other Australian domestic ports, New Zealand, Asia and beyond and will benefit from interline and special prorate agreements secured with Qantas.
“We’ve really got to look at the mix of our business and go into the tourism area which has been left a bit lacklustre in the Solomon Islands,” Kraus said from Honiara in an interview with Australian Aviation.
“The business market is winding down a bit and we hope to step it up with tourism.”
Kraus noted the mix of traffic to the Solomon Islands from Australia was traditionally 80 per cent business, given the presence of the Australian Defence Force and Australian Federal Police, and the remainder tourists and those visiting friends and relatives (VFR).
The airline’s Brisbane service also carried a significant amount of cargo, such as whitegoods, machinery and consumer goods, with Kraus estimating the amount of uplift had risen by about 30 per cent during the past 12 months.
The airline’s sole A320, H4-BUS, is a 23-year-old aircraft that rolled out of the Airbus factory in early 1992 and previously flew for Canadian Airlines and Air Canada, among others.
In addition to Brisbane and, from June, Sydney, the A320 also operates from Honiara to Nadi via Port Vila on Saturdays.
Kraus said the A320 was due to be returned to lessors at the end of 2015, giving the government-owned airline an opportunity to upgrade to a newer aircraft and potentially add a second narrowbody to the fleet in order to grow the Sydney route.
“It is an older machine but it certainly has worked in our favour by being fairly reliable and the potential for cargo uplift by ULD containers obviously gives us a little bit of an advantage on other narrow body operators without that capability,” he said.
“At the moment we are looking for either one or two units between the A319 and A320 so we are doing our homework now and hopefully will have an assessment ready for the company to consider by the end of March or early April.
“As everybody knows when you put one flight a week it doesn’t get you too far.
“So the idea would be to see if we can bump up that route quickly so that we can add a beginning of the week and the end of the week so we can grow the market a bit further.”
While the A320 was used internationally, Solomon Airlines operated Dash 8-100 turboprop services on domestic routes, including to remote communities and unpaved airstrips.
The Solomon Islands was a relatively small market and sandwiched between the much larger PNG to the west and Fiji to the east.
As a result, the national flag carrier was adopting what Kraus described as prudent growth plans, preferring to tap into the international services of Air Nuigini and Fiji Airways, in addition to building its interline arrangement with Qantas, rather than expand on its own metal.
To that end, Solomon Airlines, Air Nuigini and Air Vanuatu recently agreed to “jointly develop and promote partnership in aviation services”.
The three Melanesian carriers will begin codesharing on the Port Moresby-Honiara-Port Vila route from June, the trio said in a statement on February 16.
“The code share will form the basis for further corporation and other similar arrangements promoting aviation collaboration among Melanesian Spearhead Group carriers,” Solomon Airlines said in a statement.
Back in Australia, Kraus said the Solomon Airlines wanted to “be friends with everybody and enemies to none”.
“We have a good relationship with Virgin even though they are competitors on the Brisbane route,” Kraus said.
“Our relationship with Qantas is excellent and we hope to grow that. It gives the opportunity for someone that is flying from Canberra to Solomons to receive a Solomon Airlines boarding pass while in Canberra.
“It is a one-stop shop and the bags go all the way through to Honiara.”
Figures from the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics showed Solomon Airlines had load factors of about 55 per cent on its inbound flight to Brisbane and 53 per cent on the return services to Honiara during the 12 months to November 2014.
Meanwhile, the airline carried an average of 20 tonnes of cargo a month over that period on the four times a week service.