November 23 will be a day of national importance for Fiji.
It will be the day the country’s first Airbus A350 arrives in the capital Nadi after a special Fiji Airways flight with guests and media from Brisbane.
“We will have thousands of people out and live coverage on national TV while we show off the aircraft over the city,” Fiji Airways chief executive André Viljoen said in Toulouse at the aircraft handover on Friday.
Viljoen described the first of two A350-900s to be delivered to the island carrier this year, with the second coming in mid-December, “a massive game-changer for us.”
The A350s, leased from Dubai-based lessor DAE, enable the carrier for the first time to envisage its long-planned expansion into the heart of the US.
“This aircraft has the legs to do it, and we want to go to either Dallas/Fort Worth or Chicago non-stop from Fiji,” Viljoen said.
The background to this is that Fiji, with an economy mainly based on tourism, wants to maintain its 5 percent visitor growth rate.
“Sixty percent of arrivals come from Australia and New Zealand, only 20 percent currently from the US,” Viljoen noted.
With the Australasian market regarded as fairly saturated, Fiji plans to increase frequencies from Nadi to Los Angeles from daily to double daily as well as go to daily from four times a week to San Francisco.
The Fijian airline currently flies six wide-bodies, five A330-200s and one A330-300, and wants to maintain this number for the time being.
“Two of the A330-200s are on short-term lease from Etihad and will exit the fleet once the A350s have arrived,” Viljoen said.
But The Fiji CEO already has an appetite for more.
“We might go to a total of three or four A350s with another one may be due within 18 months,” he observed, hinting at further upcoming lease deals.
The first A350 delivered on Friday, christened “Island of Viti Levu”, left Toulouse on Friday afternoon local time to fly to the Dubai Air Show over the coming days.
It will enter scheduled service on December 1 with flights to Auckland and Sydney, mostly for crew training.
From January, the two A350s enter long-haul flying with daily flights to Los Angeles and Sydney.
Fiji Airways is the 31st operator of the A350, which has received 913 orders (737 for the base version A350-900 and 176 for the larger A350-1000) while 323 had been delivered by Friday.
In terms of cabin product, the A350 is also a milestone for Fiji Airways.
For the first time the carrier offers full-flat Collins “SuperDiamond” seats in business class, clocking up a total of 33 in a 1-2-1 configuration.
The distinct patterns of Fiji Airways’ much-liked Teteva branding appear also on the pillowcases and amenity bags as a welcome bold contrast to elegant seat covers in a very light grey.
The pitch is 60-62 inches while the HD touch IFE screens come in at 17 inches.
Another product premiere for the airline comes with the 39 seats in the first four rows of economy.
While it’s the same hardware as the 262 seats in economy, the CL3710 from Recaro, the first rows come with 34-inch pitch (versus 31-32 inches) and are called “Bula Space”.
The 12-inch screens are the same for all seats in this cabin.
As Fiji intends to keep the four A330s it owns for the time being, it has no intention of upgrading the cabins on those aircraft to the standard of the new A350s.
Fiji Airways is also an operator of the Boeing 737MAX8 of which two are currently stored in Nadi, three more are to be delivered.
“Luckily we managed to keep our four 737NGs that were supposed to have left already. Together with the two A330s from Etihad we were able to cope with the MAX crisis,” Viljoen observed.
“We also had contingency plans, as whatever Boeing said so far didn’t work out.”
Viljoen said he wanted to acquire A321neos if the MAX didn’t go back into service soon.
According to the CEO, the intense competition on the route from Sydney to Nadi fuels Fiji Airways’ desire to offer the best product.
The island carrier offers 7,900 seats weekly from Sydney while three Australian carriers have an allotment for 6,900 seats in total, split between Qantas Jetstar and Virgin Australia.
The passenger number Fiji Airways carried last year, about 1.7 million, will stay stable for the next two years, Viljoen expects, as he wants to curtail capacity growth and consolidate.
During the delivery event in Toulouse, Airbus CCO Christian Scherer emphasized once more how well suited the ULR variant of the A350-1000 Airbus proposed to Qantas for Project Sunrise would be.
“The A350-1000 has proven we can tick all the boxes with it, we don’t have that much to do even on the current -1000, the inherent capacity for this mission is clearly already built in the design of the aircraft”, Scherer argued.
“We just have to beef up the take-off weight, increase fuel capacity and fine-tune some offerings for the passenger experience on such missions.”
At the same time, Scherer admitted that the rising star of Airbus’s product portfolio, the A321neoLR and XLR, might cannibalize parts of the manufacturer’s A330 sales.
“So what? The market needs seats and we provide them,” he added, noting it didn’t matter to Airbus whether it provided seats in narrow-bodies or wide-bodies as long as it could provide them.