I Know … Let’s Start an Airline!
Some 25 or so years ago, George Wray had a one-man law practice in Pago Pago, American Samoa. George was a pilot as well as a lawyer and often flew his own plane to meet with clients in Apia, the capital city of Western Samoa, an independent nation just a 30-minute flight away. George made the trip so frequently that people began asking him if they could catch a ride. So George said, “I think I’ll start an airline.”
He acquired a twin engine Otter—leased it, I suppose—hired a couple of pilots, and started flying locals back and forth between the two towns. And South Pacific Island Airways was born.
Samoans had barely gotten used to the idea of having their own airline when George
leased a Boeing 707 and began regular flights between Pago Pago and Honolulu. This was another bold—some said foolhardy—move because it put George in direct competition with Continental Airlines which was then flying that route.
At first, Continental viewed the competition from SPIA with disdain. After all, their airline was serving Pago Pago with modern DC-10’s, while by that time the 707s were considered to be virtually obsolete by the major airlines.
“George will never make it,” Stan Kennedy, Continental’s man in Honolulu told me. “Our DC-10s are much more fuel efficient and they carry twice as many people.”
Wray laughed when I relayed Kennedy’s remark. “But we’re both averaging just over 100 passengers per flight,” he said. “The DC-10 can carry more than 200 passengers and they lose money if the flight is half full, but a hundred passengers is a profitable flight for me.”
Within months, George leased two more 707s and began flights to Tahiti and Guam. It was often a struggle, however, and on more than one occasion, passengers waited in a departure lounge while George ran around Honolulu raising enough money to pay for jet fuel.
SPIA’s inevitable demise came as the result of two events, either of which would have probably been fatal. First, there was a slew of negative publicity when the FAA grounded SPIA because a pilot flew a charter over the pole to Europe despite the failure of a required piece of navigational equipment. And, at about the same time, Hawaiian Airlines aggressively entered those same markets.
Still, I liked George immensely and to this day I wonder how a lawyer, working from a small office in Pago Pago, American Samoa, could wake up one morning and say, “I think I’ll start an airline.” And then do it!