South Pacific influence
William and Melia are the second and third generation aviation people in the Foon family.
As by far the largest South Pacific nation, discounting New Zealand, Fiji has a substantial political and economic presence in the region. Fiji’s international airport at Nadi, too, serves as the transport hub for most of the surrounding island countries.
While by no means as complicated as the airlines’ situation in neighbouring Tonga, Fiji’s carriers have been through a number of permutations. The modern, continuous, series started not long after WWII when Tasmanian Harold Gatty moved to Fiji and founded Katafaga Estates in the Lau Group. He renamed it Fiji Airways in September 1951, and Fred Ladd, who occupies a significant place in New Zealand aviation history, was its first chief pilot.
After Gatty died in 1958 his airline was acquired by Qantas. Efforts to interest neighbouring countries in the airline business led to shareholdings by the governments of Tonga, Western Samoa, Nauru, Kiribati and the Solomon Islands, but Fiji’s independence from Britain in 1970 led to the new national government’s buying shares and renaming the airline Air Pacific to reflect its regional presence.
The early 1970s saw big changes to Air Pacific’s ownership. While Qantas, TEAL/Air New Zealand and BOAC/British Airways still held shares, other regional governments pulled out as they set up their own national airlines. The Fijian government acquired a controlling interest in 1974, recognising the airline’s crucial role as tourism grew to become the country’s leading industry.
While Air Pacific always had regional aspirations, other Fijian airlines operated purely domestic routes. The other, first, Air Pacific started in July 1967, based in Nausori, near Suva, but was renamed Fiji Air in March 1971 and changed again in 1995 to Air Fiji. At the time of its closure in 2009 for financial reasons, Air Fiji operated a fleet of Britten-Norman Islanders, Bandeirantes and Harbin Y-12s, having also flown Twin Otters during its heyday.
New Zealander Don Collingwood set up Sunflower Airlines in 1980 with a single Islander flying Nadi–Taveuni. Other aircraft types such as the Twin Otter, DH114 Heron and Shorts 330 were added and the name later changed to Sun Air, and in January 2007 the airline was sold to Air Pacific which re-established it as Fiji Airlines Ltd, trading as Pacific Sun and with a pair of ATR 42-500s added to the Islanders and Twin Otters.
More name changes followed. Air Pacific, whose name was often confused with other airlines and even a Hong Kong air conditioning company, changed back to Fiji Airways, part of the Air Pacific Group, in June 2013. A year later Pacific Sun was rebranded Fiji Link.
All this aviation activity has meant welcome career opportunities for Fijians, and their influence has spread further. Today 30 Fijian nationals are based around the Persian Gulf and its four main airlines—20 with Emirates Airline, six at Oman Air, three at Qatar Airways and one with Etihad Airways—while another has recently returned to Fiji.
William Foon is one of those 30, an Emirates B777 captain found, as often as he can manage, on the direct Dubai–Auckland flight currently ranking as the world’s longest non-stop regular daily service.
The Foon family’s background comes through Tarawa, Kiribati, and Max Foon was an Air Pacific engineer. He brought his family to Auckland and, while he worked at Aero-Technology, Ardmore, his son William spent the last four years of his education at Auckland Grammar and went straight from there into flying, earning his CPL at Ardmore Flying School.
Back in Fiji, William flew for Air Fiji, working his way up through the fleet of Islanders, Twin Otters, Bandeirantes and Harbin Y-12s while he studied his ATPL subjects. Armed with that qualification, in 2000 he joined Air Pacific, flying the B737NG for five years. The operation was marginal for B737s which with their 180min ETOPS weren’t meant for such routes as Nadi–Honolulu’s 6hr 40min, or Honolulu–Vancouver.
“Then Oman Air came looking,” he says, “poaching pilots with 737NG ratings. Twelve of us, all Fijians and including our families, went to Oman. Air Pacific wasn’t very happy about that, and we were known as the ‘Dirty Dozen’.”
Gradually all 12 moved to Emirates. William changed airlines in 2006, spending four years as a first officer and then a B777 captain.
“Emirates is a truly international airline,” he says. “It employs 200 nationalities, 160 of them on the flight deck, and only twice have I ever flown with one of the other Fijians.”
Emirates’ A380 and B777 fleets (the A340s and A330s, plus a number of older B777s, are being retired in favour of newer models) are run in parallel with equal seniority and pay scales. Some shuffling between fleets does occur according to requirements, with crews retraining for their new type ratings.
The 31-year-old airline operates one of the largest fleets of wide-bodied airliners, currently numbering 234 with more than that number on order. One in three of the world’s A380s currently flying wears the Emirates colours.
The Foon family is presently living in Auckland—which helps explains Capt William’s bidding for this route—while daughter Melia (18) learns to fly at Ardmore Flying School. Her ambition is to fly GA in Vanuatu where her grandfather, Max, runs South Pacific Aviation Services, largely concerned with auditing. At 12, brother William has yet to settle on ideas of life after school.
Until he retires in time to return to the islands to enjoy life, William Foon is more than happy to fly the Emirates long hauls as an example of the aviation career options available to Fijians. Life is not all about rugby and soldiers.
- Report and photography by John King.
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