In June, Air Pacific takes on its old name, Fiji Airways, but it's an important step forward, writes Julietta Jameson.
In the early days of aviation, Tasmanian-born navigator Harold Gatty had an extraordinarily colourful career, pulling off daredevil feats and breaking around-the-world records.
"He was a pioneer," his son, Dr Ronald Gatty, says. "He was fearless and a visionary."
Gatty senior settled in Fiji and in 1951 founded Fiji Airways, operating out of Nadi, flying among the inhabited islands. It became very successful, and when Gatty snr died in 1957 Qantas bought it. In 1971, it was renamed Air Pacific in an effort to expand its regional appeal.
But that hurt the younger Gatty, who believes his father's contributions have been long overlooked. Though flags were flown at half-mast following his death, "my father never got the recognition he deserved in Fiji", says Gatty, who lives just outside Suva and runs a spice business, Spices of Fiji. "There's not even a street named after him." (There is, however, a statue of him in his birthplace, Campbell Town, Tasmania.)
Despite the Fijian government taking a controlling interest in 1974, under the Air Pacific moniker the airline remained. This June, however, that all changes when everything old becomes new again and the Fiji Airways name is restored after 40 years.
In a country as patriotic as Fiji, the reinstatement of a title that actually reflects where the airline comes from is a big deal. When the first newly Fijian Airways-branded Airbus A330 did a low flyover on March 19 sporting its new retro livery designed by Fijian artisan Makareta Matamosi, radio broadcast its every location, schoolchildren stood in formation on football fields spelling out "Fiji", and whole villages rushed out to see it pass by. There was a huge party for it in Air Pacific's maintenance hangar at Suva International Airport.
Gatty, who has courted controversy for being outspoken about Fiji's unelected government and rule-by-decree, was there but left abruptly after the speeches - because his father was, again, not thanked.
Personal slights aside, the importance of Air Pacific reverting to Fiji Airways is more than symbolic. Tourism accounts for somewhere between a quarter and one-third of Fiji's GDP. In his "budget for the people" speech in November, Prime Minister Josaia Bainimarama highlighted the change as significant. "The recent rebranding of [Tourism Fiji] under the slogan 'Fiji: Where Happiness Finds You' and our national airline as Fiji Airways is expected to further boost the performance of the tourism industry," he said.
The A330 is the Fijian airline's first wide-body plane, with two more following this year, and the fit-out is spacious, functional and attractive.
Business class features tilted flat beds and the economy cabin boasts shared power sockets, mood lighting and a large double disabled toilet that also contains a change table, giving parents with babies welcome room.
Outgoing Air Pacific chief executive David Pflieger says the aim is to make Fiji Airways "the preferred airline in the South Pacific".
He says the new livery is merely the surface of an investment of close to $FJ1 billion ($500 million) that is "critical for the Fiji economy" and was "built from the ground up to represent the Fijian people".
As for Gatty, he's no longer waiting for any official recognition of his father. He's donating a significant amount of his own money to creating a "Ronald Gatty Wing" of the Fiji Museum in Suva. He's hopeful Fiji Airways will contribute in some way, too.
Julietta Jameson travelled courtesy of Air Pacific and Tourism Fiji.
Harold Gatty is the subject of an out-of-print book, Gatty: Prince of Navigators. The Gatty's original family home, which still has the first swimming pool in Suva, is now a charming boutique hotel, the Five Princes (see fiveprinceshotel.com).