Pohnpei, FSM—In the very late afternoon of June 9, the arrivals area of Pohnpei International Airport (PNI) was rammed full of people from two nations, the Federated States of Micronesia and Japan. They were all there to celebrate the handing over to Pohnpei State of airport improvement projects that were funded by grants from Japanese Overseas Development Assistance. The ODA program funded the complete renovation of the airport terminal and also paid for the extension of the PNI runway.
The celebration was also to commemorate the arrival of the first ever direct charter flight from Tokyo to Pohnpei. United Airlines flight 1864 carried 120 passengers including former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori and Japanese film and recording superstar, Hideaki Takizawa.
Because the United Airlines regular commercial flight to Pohnpei was late on that afternoon, the inaugural friendship flight from Japan was delayed after it was already in the air. The flight from Narita should have lasted just over four hours but the pilot had to adjust the flight plan in order to stay out of Pohnpei airspace for an additional hour.
Despite that hitch the flight was historic.
“This is the day that the entire nation and especially Pohnpei State has been waiting for. If you don’t believe in dreams come true, please think again,” said Lorin Roberts, FSM’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs during his speech at the handing over ceremony. He told the crowd that Tokyo International Airport in Narita is the sister airport to Pohnpei International Airport. “…our airport relationship is no longer on a dotted line, as wishful thinking,” he said. “It is now real and it is here.”
“It is my fervent wish that the improved Pohnpei International Airport will contribute to the further promotion of tourism and increasing economic activities including transporting marine resources caught in the FSM,” said Eichii Suzuki, Japan’s Ambassador to the FSM.
The concept of a direct charter from Japan had been envisioned for over ten years but it never really gathered steam until about three years ago because of the PNI runway extension project.
In the early days of planning, organizers had hoped to charter a Boeing 767 which has a capacity of 254 passengers. Though it is now possible for a plane of that size to land in Pohnpei, the island doesn’t have enough lodging space.
A representative from Pohnpei’s Tourism office said this week that there are still only a total of 198 hotel rooms in Pohnpei.
Early organizers were forced to scrap plans to charter a 767 for inaugural Friendship Flight.
FSM Ambassador to Japan, John Fritz wrote in an email that the implementation of the inaugural flight faced three main obstacles. One was that the government was unable to sign a charter contract. The second was the difficulty in identifying an airline and an agent that would share the long term visions of the project. The third was the crucial timing for the actual charter to take place.
Ambassador Fritz wrote that Mr. Motoaki Haga of Organization for Global Exchange (OGE) was on the Tokyo Task Force for the Inaugural Friendship Flight. Mr. Haga “understood the nature of this charter (flight) and the mutual importance it holds for FSM and Japan, (and) opted to have his organization sign on behalf of the Government,” Fritz wrote. “Through his connections, he secured support and financial backing to guarantee the initial payments of the charter. Mr. Takashi Okuno of TOYO Life Service (TOYO) was one of those that were pulled into the project by OGE.” Obstacle number one was resolved.
As to obstacle number two, the Tokyo Task Force for the inaugural friendship flight contacted, All Nippon Airways, Japan Airlines and various other airlines including what was then Continental Airlines.
“The downturn of Japan’s economy and restructure of various airlines posed a serious hindrance in the Tokyo Task Force negotiations,” Ambassador Fritz wrote. The group finally chose United Airlines as the “final fall back option,” but United was only able to offer the 737-700 class for the charter. The 737-700 class can carry a maximum of 121 passengers; a smaller number than the 737-800 class which regularly serves the FSM on a daily basis and can carry 145 passengers.
The Tokyo task force decided on Nippon Travel Agency (NTA) as the overseeing travel agent.
By mid-2011 the target date of June 9, 2012 for the flight was set but that date could not be announced to the public due to a variety of factors including the Japan tragedies of March 11, 2011, and the subsequent downturn in Japan’s economy along with a changed Japanese political situation. Additionally, because of a construction complication on the runway extension, US Federal Aviation Administration clearance was uncertain. The combined effects meant that organizers could not make an official announcement about the flight until only two months before the actual departure date.
“Although NTA was the overseeing agency for the flight and OGE was the guarantor, the expected passengers were those with close affiliation with FSM. Therefore, all passenger recruiting, except the OGE group (which included TOYO and Hideaki Takizawa along with his entourage and media representatives) were done by the Tokyo Embassy,” he wrote. The FSM Embassy was able to secure 90 passengers for the inaugural flight.
Fritz wrote that the 90 passengers it recruited consisted of former Mori sensei (Prime Minister Mori) and his group, family groups with descendants in FSM, NGOs active in FSM such as the Association for Micronesian Development and Friends of Micronesia, representatives of various fisheries companies, and traditional friends and supporters of the FSM that the Embassy has built over the years.
Bermance Aldis of FSM’s office of tourism says that “Rainbownesia,” a Japanese registered NGO endorsed five years ago by FSM’s President Manny Mori and the Governors of the four FSM States and which coordinates its activities closely with the FSM Embassy in Tokyo, also had an impact on bookings for the inaugural flight.
Aldis said that “Rainbownesia” is an FSM marketing tool designed to attract Japanese tourists to the FSM.
“Rainbownesia” subscribers pay an annual fee of 5000 Yen (approximately $68USD) annually to get updates on FSM events. Subscribers also get discounts from participating businesses across the FSM.
“Rainbownesia” has a website in the Japanese language. Its volunteers participate in tourism and trade fairs to promote Japanese tourism to the FSM.
Aldis said that the June 9 inaugural flight will not be the last charter flight from Tokyo to Pohnpei.