Fiji Airways terminate 775 staff: 'Devastating' airline sackings highlight the need for travel bubble

Fiji Airways' decision to let go nearly 800 staff due to the Covid-19 pandemic highlights the importance of establishing a Pacific "travel bubble" as soon as possible, an aviation expert says.

Irene King, former chief executive of the Aviation Industry Association and now an independent aviation commenter, said the airline's decision to send termination letters to 775 was not unexpected, particularly as it has a negligible domestic market.

"With absolutely no certainty around when the border might open, the company would have had no choice but to stop the drain on finance," King said.

Fiji's national carrier suspended 95 per cent of its international flights on March 20 in response to the pandemic. In early May, it announced the suspensions would continue until the end of June.

"Politically, [the job losses] will be an absolutely devastating blow and really highlight the urgency with which New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Island governments need to get into sensible, meaningful and timely dialogue on when and how to open borders," King said. 

Fiji Airways has given 775 staff 48 hours to return company property and collect personal belongings from the office.

"If not, there will be economic chaos across the Pacific as these islands are incredibly dependent on foreign tourism."

On May 8, the airline's chief executive Andre Viljoen said any resumption on flights would depend on the easing of border restrictions and demand. 

"While the near-term outlook remains bleak, we remain flexible and will be ready to launch services as soon as practical...

"We will continue to assess the situation and may reduce capacity further if required. The outlook remains bleak, and we are preparing for the worst while hoping for the best."


Fiji Airways told affected staff in their termination letters that they could reapply for their roles when the situation allowed. 

When border restrictions are lifted. Auckland University of Technology tourism professor Michael Lueck predicts Aucklanders will be able to get to Fiji fairly easily, saying "capacity will be added as needed. 

"However, Fiji Airways also flew into Wellington and Christchurch, and Air New Zealand flew these routes seasonally. With slow recovery of demand, I expect Air New Zealand to route these passengers through Auckland before we see demand build up to enough to operate out of other cities. Equally, Suva services may be suspended for much longer, since demand is generally much lower than to Nadi."

Fiji has put up its hand to join the travel bubble the New Zealand and Australian governments are working to establish as soon as possible. 

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern and Prime Minister Scott Morrison said their governments would look at including "members of our broader Pacific family" when the trans-Tasman arrangement was good to go. 

Time is of the essence in establishing a travel bubble with Pacific Island countries, Lueck said. 

"Most Island nations are heavily dependent on tourism, so if the bubble were not to happen, they'd suffer longer and more.

"But we also have to bear in mind that there is a large VFR (visiting friends and relatives) market, and many Islanders living in New Zealand are desperate to visit friends and family back home."

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