Departure Lounge: Sketches of Fiji

Sketches of Fiji by high-profile Pacific aviator Andrew Drysdale harks back to a different time, when ‘Travelling Ground Engineers’ carried their own toolboxes and played the role of hostess, dispensing soup and sandwiches when planes were airborne, then checking the engines, supervise refuelling and do the engineering walk-around inspection on landing.

Drysdale is now Executive Director of Mentor Aviation Services, consulting to the aviation industry throughout the Asia/Pacific region. But as he describes in his memoir, he rose through the ranks from Fiji’s first aircraft engineering apprentice to CEO of Air Pacific (now Fiji Airways), with a detour as Chief Executive of Blue Lagoon Cruises along the way.

Drysdale grew to be a skilled PR operator as CEO, and his book gives the back-story of many of the industrial relations and business stories that dominated local media during his tenure.

One of the most interesting passages in Sketches of Fiji deals with his brief period as a unionist. He describes this time as an “angry young man” as being sparked by unequal treatment of local and expatriate workers, and an arbitrary decision to increase working hours and introduce Saturday work.

As a result Drysdale helped form the Fiji Aviation Workers Association, writing the constitution and first log of claims at his kitchen table. However he writes that the attitude of union leaders prompted him to distance himself from organised labour activities, and that he was saddened to see these attitudes persist when he returned to the airline as CEO, claiming: “They were past masters at building aspirations amongst their members and using this to create a synthetic anger based on greed.”

Drysdale’s account of his time at Blue Lagoon, is equally illuminating, as he joined when it was very much a family-run company. In these chapters, as with much of his book, he is generous and diligent about naming and recognising the many local travel and tourism colleagues who earned his respect and trust over the years. He also makes some interesting observations about the distribution of income and payments to villages and communities visited in the early days of Fiji’s tourism industry, and the difference strong village leadership made to how funds were spent.

Drysdale took over as CEO of Air Pacific in 1988 and provides insights into the airline’s relationship with Qantas, what it was like to operate in post-(Rabuka) coup Fiji, and into the decisions to move Air Pacific to Nadi from Suva and begin flights to Japan and the US. By the time he left Air Pacific, the airline had been profitable for each of the ten years he was CEO.

Unlike political biographies and books, there are few accounts of doing business in Fiji written from the inside. Sketches of Fiji is recommended to those with an interest in the history of Fiji’s tourism industry, and to those interested in doing business in Fiji more generally. While much of the book is very much an account of its time, there are some gems of practical advice and a reminder that basic decency can go a long way.

Sketches of Fiji is self-published. Details at

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