The need to survive and keep a national asset afloat is taking a heavy toll on Solomon Airlines.
In an open letter to stakeholders this week, Solomon Airlines CEO Brett Gebers outlined a number of measures the company was taking in order to keep the national flag carrier going but admitted things had become so tough that each day was “now a case of survival”.
“The truth simply is, that with over 60 percent of the company’s revenue vanishing overnight and fixed costs remaining, there is a problem – and the daily reality for Solomon Airlines is now a case of survival, a dire situation which has required some drastic action.
“Regrettably, with operations severely reduced, we ultimately had no choice but to reduce our workforce through retrenchments to match the requirements of what will be a smaller airline for some time to come. We are now operating with a smaller workforce on reduced pay, and some staff are working on a job rotation basis – month on, month off to share available work, and remain ready for an increase in business,” Gebers said.
With no clear sign of borders reopening in the foreseeable future, the airline has had to rely on Government and other partners to remain above water.
“At this juncture, like airlines everywhere, Solomon Airlines has minimal cash reserves, and we are indebted to those we owe money to and are deeply grateful to have very good working relationships with our suppliers and creditors who are working with us to keep us in business. The future is unclear and our survival depends upon Government support and the intermittent revenue we raise as we wait to reopen Solomon Islands borders and begin regular operations again.”
In May, the airline received a cash injection of SBD20million (US$2.48million) in the form of a soft loan and grant from the Solomon Islands government’s SBD309million (US$38.25million) COVID-19 stimulus package.
Gebers stressed the need to preserve the company as a strategic national asset despite the tough market conditions brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
“For an archipelago nation dependent upon international air access, it is vital to ensure the survival of the national carrier,” he said.
“Solomon Airlines is critical to economic recovery, and to future economic development. We are also an instrument of government, capable of providing essential domestic and international services in times of crisis or emergency.
“Without a national airline, there would be limited control over air access to, from, and within the Solomon Islands. There would be limited control over air travel and cargo pricing and scheduling, no easy medical travel, airmail or express cargo. Without a national airline, there would be a permanent loss of locally-based aviation, tourism, and skilled jobs,” Gerbers added.
The scenario is a far cry from the sure progress made by the company early this year when it welcomed the arrival of its new Airbus A320 in March after months of searching for the right aircraft. Tourist numbers were trending upwards and several years of progress had culminated in a seven percent growth in tourists flown last year, according to Gerbers.
Other milestones included the reopening of Munda Airport as an international gateway to the Western Province in March 2019, the refurbishment of its Twin Otter domestic fleet and modernising its reservations system.
Solomon Airlines was also instrumental in the establishment of the Solomon Islands Tourism Infrastructure Development Fund (SITIDF)—largely funded by the New Zealand government—which provided qualified local tourism operators with interest free loans to develop facilities and upgrade accommodation.
“As we all know business has cycles and we were prepared for a slower rate of growth in 2020 but like all airlines, we did not expect the devastating travel restrictions imposed by Governments and the consequent collapse of the travel industry,” he said, adding that the pandemic had forced the airline to stop all scheduled flights to Australia, Fiji, Vanuatu, and Kiribati.
Revenue however has begun trickling in again with the now weekly A320 cargo flight between Brisbane and Honiara and the limited, strictly controlled repatriation flights for Solomon Islanders overseas wishing to return home.
“We are continuing approved repatriation flights and charters as well as constantly reviewing our current finances and potential future operations,” said Gerber.
“We can still see an exciting, valuable future tourism development for the Solomon Islands and that requires a national carrier. Aviation and Tourism must work hand in hand as we navigate an era that will require further endurance, extra care, gradual restoration, promotion and protection of air services, and travel opportunities to, from, and within the Solomon Islands,” he added.
COVID, climate and oceans were high on the agenda, as foreign ministers and officials from around the region met online on 14 October, for the 2020 Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting (FFMM).
This year’s ministerial summit focussed on the COVID-19 crisis and post-pandemic recovery; actions to address the ongoing challenge of climate change; policy on oceans and the impact of sea level rise on maritime boundaries; and finalising an agenda to place before the virtual meeting of Pacific Islands Forum leaders, likely to be held in early November.
Each year, a Forum Officials Committee meets to discuss the draft agenda for the annual Forum, and thrash out initial draft language that can square the circle over sensitive issues. In 2015, a Forum Foreign Ministers Meeting was added to the list of regional meetings, designed to free up more time for Presidents and Prime Ministers to talk freely amongst themselves at the annual leaders’ summit.
Opening the online FFMM, Pacific Islands Forum Secretary General Dame Meg Taylor noted the success of regional co-operation in the early days of the pandemic: “Using available regional mechanisms such as the Biketawa Declaration and the Boe Declaration, we were able to achieve a world first with the establishment and operationalisation of the Pacific Humanitarian Pathway on COVID-19, our regional response platform which has been able to move around 47,000 kilograms or 466 cubic metres of medical and humanitarian supplies through our region.”
The regional response to COVID-19 initially prioritised the distribution of medical supplies, testing kits and technical assistance. But Forum member countries, especially those without any confirmed cases of coronavirus, are increasingly looking at the social and economic damage caused by border closures and disrupted trade and tourism.
Tuvalu’s Foreign Minister Simon Kofe chaired the ministerial summit and spoke to journalists after the meeting. He highlighted “the need to address the disproportionate effect of the COVID-19 crisis on vulnerable groups, including persons with disability, the elderly and women and girls - an issue faced by the full Forum membership.”
One ongoing challenge for smaller island states is to organise the return of citizens who have been working or studying abroad. Kiribati and Tuvalu are seeking assistance from the United Nations and neighbouring countries to bring home seafarers and seasonal workers who must transit through regional travel hubs like Auckland, Nauru or Nadi. The Tuvalu Foreign Minister recognised that many of his own nationals have found it hard to return home and “hundreds of i-Kiribati seafarers are amongst those in limbo as they were at sea, awaiting repatriation home and they’ve been stuck for many months.”
The FFMM proposed further discussions on a regional quarantine facility and travel bubbles to allow the transit of affected workers.
Simon Kofe stressed that developing countries need economic support during the recovery, but also ongoing medical assistance: “Ministers highlighted the need for cooperative, multilateral approaches to allow equitable access to trusted and certified COVID-19 tests, treatments and vaccines and ensuring their accountable and transparent procurement and distribution.”
Dame Meg Taylor confirmed that access to vaccines was a crucial next step in the regional response: “Our governments have been working very closely with different groupings to make sure that the Pacific secures vaccines. We had a very strong commitment from the Australian Prime Minister during this meeting that Australia would make sure that as they access vaccines, they would ensure that the Pacific was also able to access that vaccine.”
At a time of geopolitical contest in the region between China and the ANZUS allies, the Forum Secretary General diplomatically noted that Australia was not the only potential source for vaccines: “The leaders - all of them, hopefully - will be emphasising that we get our fair share of the vaccines and this is not just through Australia and New Zealand. If there are opportunities for vaccines from elsewhere that have been cleared, I know there is some of our countries that are working with different groupings to ensure that those vaccines will be available.”
The foreign ministers discussed a common statement “Protecting the health and well-being of the Blue Pacific”, to be presented to leaders and then to the forthcoming Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly on COVID-19 in December.
In her opening speech to the meeting, Dame Meg Taylor stated: “Notwithstanding COVID-19 and whether there is a vaccine today or tomorrow, we will continue to face a more pressing challenge, the existential threat of climate change and its related impacts.”
The Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI) was the first Pacific country to lodge an updated Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC) under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, and has been calling on fellow Forum members to put forward more ambitious NDCs.
After the FFMM, RMI Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Casten Nemra said: “The Pacific region reaffirmed at ministerial level the determination to uphold the Paris Agreement and to deliver new, more ambitious nationally determined contributions in this fifth anniversary year of the landmark international accord. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, new climate ambition in the Pacific is indispensable to our building back better.”
Secretary General Taylor acknowledged that “for some countries, coming through with NDCs may pose some internal challenges,” but said the FFMM had reaffirmed the regional policy adopted at last year’s Forum Leaders Meeting in Funafuti: “The ministers reaffirmed their support for the ‘Kainaki II Declaration for Urgent Climate Action Now ’ and that is as important this year as it was last year.”
Marshall Islands is currently a member of the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), and is using this position to leverage greater action on climate change. At the FFMM, Foreign Minister Nemra obtained regional support from his counterparts to campaign for a UN Special Rapporteur on climate change and human rights. Fiji is currently another island member of the UNHRC, and backed this initiative in the meeting.
Nemra explained: “In endorsing the creation of a dedicated new UN Special Rapporteur on climate change and human rights, the Pacific region will remain at the forefront of ambitious new actions to uphold rights threatened by the climate emergency facing all societies. We look forward to working with the entire region and the international community, as well as within the UN Human Rights Council, to secure this vital new mandate for overcoming the climate crisis by next year.”
This year’s 26th UNFCCC Conference of the Parties in Glasgow (COP26) was deferred because of the pandemic, but there are still regional and global efforts to increase ambition before the meeting, to be held in late 2021. The outcome of November’s Presidential election in the United states will have a major impact on the Paris Agreement, but Pacific island nations are also looking for greater climate action from their Kiwi neighbours, following Saturday’s elections in New Zealand.
Just days after the FFMM, the major victory of the NZ Labour Party in national elections will impact regional as well as domestic policy. Under Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Labour now holds a majority in its own right. The elections saw the political demise of former Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Winston Peters, a long-standing figure on the national and regional stage. Peters’ NZ First party failed to meet the 5 per cent threshold to be represented in Parliament and his departure from the former governing coalition removes a constraint on New Zealand’s climate ambition.
This was highlighted the day after the NZ election, with Fiji Prime Minister Voreqe Bainimarama welcoming Jacinda Ardern’s victory in a tweet: “Proud to see my friend @jacindaardern score a historic victory. With a full embrace of a #netzerocommitment by 2050, this was also a landslide win for the climate. Your friends in Fiji are ready to keep moving with our work to make the Pacific and our planet a better place.”
The 2019 leaders meeting in Funafuti saw close collaboration between Bainimarama and Ardern, leaving Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison isolated in his opposition to more urgent, ambitious targets on greenhouse gas emissions and reduced use of fossil fuels.
Forum communiques usually include enough wiggle room to allow members to paper over their differences on climate policy, but the FFMM’s reaffirmation of the Kainaki II Declaration places the Morrison Government in a difficult position. Kainaki calls on parties to the Paris Agreement “to formulate and communicate mid-century long-term low greenhouse gas emissions development strategies by 2020. This may include commitments and strategies to achieve net zero carbon by 2050.”
The Morrison government has refused to adopt such a strategy, even though a broad coalition of Australian organisations – from environmental groups to the National Farmers Federation and Business Council of Australia – have supported the objective of net zero emissions by 2050. Despite the recent adoption of a “technology road map” on climate, Morrison may face increasing pressure at this year’s Forum leaders meeting over Australia’s lack of ambition on emissions reduction.
Dame Meg Taylor suggested that attempts to water down a Forum consensus on climate action would not constrain island nations in the lead up to COP26: “What we really need to do is to ensure that the Kainaki II Declaration is the basis for our discussion. However there was discussion and acknowledgement that there are other groupings too like the PSIDS, AOSIS and also the Higher Ambition Coalition that many of our member states - particularly the island countries - do belong to. They are going to push hard to make sure that the commitments under the Paris Agreement are met.”
Beyond climate, the Forum Foreign Ministers discussed regional oceans policy, despite the disruption of Blue Pacific advocacy during the UN Year of the Ocean. With Palau scheduled to host a regional oceans summit in December, the Forum will consider establishing a subcommittee to continue work on defining legal maritime boundaries.
At the meeting, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne announced that the new ‘Pacific Fusion Centre’, currently operating from Canberra, will be based in Vanuatu. The centre will collate information from security and fisheries agencies across Pacific Island countries to provide more comprehensive “real time maritime domain awareness.”
Online leaders’ summit
The 2020 Forum leaders meeting was originally scheduled for August in Vanuatu, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of independence. However health and travel restrictions in the COVID-free nation led to the postponement of a face-to-face meeting. Since then Prime Minister of Tuvalu Kausea Natano, the current Forum Chair, has been negotiating with other leaders to finalise a date for a virtual summit, with a restricted agenda.
Beyond key agenda items of the post-pandemic recovery and climate policy, this year’s meeting must make a decision on the appointment of a new Secretary General for the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, as Dame Meg Taylor ends her second term of office next January.
Speaking after the FFMM, Tuvalu's Foreign Minister Simon Kofe said that Prime Minister Natano was still working to finalise a date for the online summit, which should be decided within days: “The process will be determined by the leaders. But in terms of dates, we are looking at November. The majority of members have expressed their preference for the first week of November.”
Five Micronesian leaders have threatened to withdraw from Forum activity if their candidate for Secretary General, RMI’s Gerald Zackios, is not appointed to the post. But Simon Kofe believes that the issue will be resolved, noting: “It's something that the leaders will look into. We are certainly very concerned about the threat from the Micronesians to pull out from the Forum.”
Summing up a successful meeting, Kofe said: “It’s been an extraordinary year this year. We are coming to the end of 2020 and I would say that we faced a number of challenges this year and there are more challenges ahead of us. But as the Pacific, we can draw on our culture and our values to be able to maintain our unity and our resilience through these testing times.”
The founder of the Pacific Island Food Revolution says the campaign’s work on changing food choices in the Pacific region is “super relevant” in the current global coronavirus pandemic.
“Our project is about nutritional resilience and building your immunity, which if you look at all the COVID concerns and the red flags raised by health experts, it’s around those who are vulnerable to underlying conditions. And we go right to the underlying conditions,” says chef Robert Oliver. “The whole end game for us is about creating resilient and robust local food systems.”
The Pacific Island Food Revolution is most commonly associated with the competitive television contest that pits cooks from Fiji, Vanuatu, Samoa and Tonga against each other. It’s now in its second season, and airs in 14 island nations to six million people per week according to Oliver, plus audiences in New Zealand, Australia, Asia and soon, through the BBC food channel. But it has many other elements, online and on social media, and through radio programs on local stations.
Funding from the program, which amounted to A$7 million for two and a half years, has now run out, and Oliver says they are looking for a new home.
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“From capital to develop and export goods like coffee, to training and support with digital platforms, Pacific businesses – especially female-led business – are in urgent need of tangible support,” says the Pacific Trade Investment (PTI) Australia Trade & Investment Commissioner, Caleb Jarvis.
The economic impacts of COVID-19 on female-led businesses in the Pacific continues to rise, according to the latest Pacific Business Monitor survey conducted by PTI.
The fifth survey in PTI’s ongoing series has found that 92% of female-led businesses have reported a fall in revenue. In comparison to the previous survey, the number of fully operational female-led businesses has declined from 29% to 23%, while partially operational businesses have increased from 19% to 41%.
Jarvis states that despite the COVID-19 free status of most Pacific Island Countries (PICs) “the economic impact of closed borders has been debilitating, especially for nations that are reliant on tourism – a sector with a high proportion of female employees.”
“Many women are performing a juggling act – balancing work with being the primary care givers,’ explains Jarvis- a trend correlating to findings published in a recent report by the United Nations titled, ‘Policy Brief: The Impact of COVID-19 on Women’.
The UN report notes that girls and women are ‘suffering more’ due to many factors: home schooling, disproportionate lack of access to digital tools, work capital, skills and higher care responsibilities.
The latest PTI survey finds that COVID-19 has had a ‘negative impact’ on the mental health of 31% of female-led business in contrast to 14% of male-led businesses. Levels of happiness and optimism continue to decline as 45% report felling worried ‘most of the time’ or ‘all of the time’.
Despite the negative impacts, more female-led businesses are implementing adaptive measures such as pivoting to online business, and seeking rent reductions or relief.
Jarvis states that “it’s a long road ahead, and its vital that we continue to champion the voice of businesses in the Pacific by continuing to provide quantitative results to governments, donors and regional organisations so they can see the realities facing Pacific businesses.”
The University of the South Pacific (USP) recently invited 30 employers to engage in a two-day exposition at its annual Career and Internship Fair.
The event was organized by USP’s Career and Entrepreneurship Center, Campus Life and allows USP students to learn about graduate training programs, attend career planning workshop sessions and interact with potential employers from the public and private sectors. The theme for this year’s fair was “Your Future Direction”.
Amongst the speakers at the event were three female engineers from the Fiji Roads Authority (FRA). Amor Acapulco and her colleagues spoke extensively about women’s empowerment in the male dominated career field.
“Civil engineering is not only for men… there are a lot successful women in engineering, like all the women sitting in front of me, and I believe even more can succeed. I have done it, so could you,” she emphasised.
The COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on the recruitment patterns were also major part of discussions at the event. Martha Wedlock, an employee of Mind Pearl underlined this issue.
“I want to educate students that even though the aviation companies and other businesses are slowing down, that’s not the end of it.”
Wedlock said that Mind Pearl and other organisations will continue to adapt their business practices and showcase resilience in the face of current economic climate, by sharing knowledge and through in-house training opportunities to enhance employee skills.
Meandering through the exposition booths, fourth year law student Pelenaisi Tu’i encouraged fellow USP students to fully utilise this opportunity.
“It’s a great opportunity for students because it will give them more knowledge, and when they go out to work they will know what to do,” she said.