Bula Fiji Airways! As of June 27th, Air Pacific, an airline servicing the South Pacific for six decades, is now Fiji Airways.
And this isn't merely a new name on the same ol' fleet, as is common practice in the airline industry. It's an extreme makeover. Two new A330 planes boldly display the country's namesake, signifying a shift in ownership.
Once owned by many South Pacific countries, the country of Fiji will now own the majority share (51%).
"The name itself evokes this enormous emotional response from Fijians. Everywhere in the world these planes will go, it will show our little country," says Elizabeth Powell, Fiji's Permanent Secretary, with tears welling up in her eyes.
Another source of joy for the Fijians is the Masi design on the aircraft's interior and exterior. The logo, in black and rust colored hues, is created by one of their own - Makereta Matemosi, a celebrated Masi artist. (Masi fabric is hammered out from the bark of Mulberry trees and then decorated with symbolic graphics made of plant-based dyes.)
"The fact that the design is authentically ours and proudly tribal is a matter of great pride," Powell explains.
Boarding the second A330 as one of the lucky passengers, among journalists and Fijian dignitaries, on its inaugural flight from Los Angeles to Nadi, Fiji, I was excited to be the first person to christen a seat, but beyond that, I didn't expect more. I was wrong.
Heading to the bathroom, I noticed the cockpit door wide open. After 9/11, that area is like the Holy of Holies. I waved shyly, figuring I was going to get in trouble for 'congregating'. Chief Fiji Airways pilot Josh Cavalevu flashed a smile and asked if I would like to take a closer look.
Pouncing on the rare opportunity of taking a charter flight with different cockpit protocol, I chatted with him about what he thought it meant for the people of Fiji to finally have a national airline.
"These new planes are making our people more patriotic. It's bringing us together," explains Cavalevu. For a country with four major coups since its independence in 1970, that's good news.
The second surprise on the flight was the aerial parade. Flying low (900 feet in altitude at one point!), we cruised over the Lau and Moala islands for villagers to catch a glimpse of it. Children were jumping up and down, fishermen flashing mirrors and women waving furiously.
Now, I was welling up with tears too.
When we landed in Nadi, the plane was greeted with water cannon salutes. The homecoming celebrations continued, including a traditional , a speech by the Prime Minister and melodic songs belted out by local choir.
For me, an aircraft is just a means to an end. But for the Fijians I spoke with, from dignitaries to dishwashers, it signifies a renewed sense of hope and progress for the future.
As of July 8th, Fiji Airways offers economy and business class direct flights to Nadi (NAN) from major cities like Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Sydney, Auckland and more. The Air Pacific Boeing fleet, aka 'the old ladies', as one Air Pacific flight attendant described them, will be phased out by the end of 2013.
For a sneak preview of the new A330s, watch the Voyage Vixens Bula Fiji Airways video.
This flight was hosted by Fiji Airways. Opinions are my own.