Flying from Apia to Pago Pago with Samoa Airways

Peter de Graaf flies aboard Samoa Airways flight OL216 from Apia to Pago Pago

The airline

: Samoa Airways, the state-owned Samoan flag carrier. Started out as Polynesian Airlines in 1959, rebranding as Samoa Airways last year. It has a fleet of four aircraft flying between Apia and Auckland, Sydney and three destinations in American Samoa.

The plane: A 19-seater, Canadian-built De Havilland DHC6-300 Twin Otter. Known for their sturdy reliability, Twin Otters are the workhorse of South Pacific short-haul aviation. This one was built in 1974 but looked tidy enough. It isn’t fast — Talofa Airways flies the same route in 18 minutes in a nine-seater Rockwell 690B Turbo Commander, half the flight time of the Twin Otter — but who’s in a hurry in this part of the world?

Class: Economy. That’s all there is.

Price: $62 — not bad for an international flight.

Flight time: 35 minutes, departure bang on time at 7.30am.

Confusingly, however, the flight landed at Pago Pago 23 hours and 25 minutes before it took off from Apia. Blame the International Date Line: In 2011 Samoa switched time zones by redrawing the date line so it now passes between independent Samoa and American Samoa. The reason for the change was to bring the Samoan calendar in line with its main trading partners, New Zealand and Australia. As a result of the shift, Samoans jumped straight from December 29 to December 31, in 2011, missing out on December 30 entirely. It still makes booking flights between the two Samoas rather confusing.

My seat: 2A, which is both a window seat and an aisle seat. You can’t get better than that.

Fellow passengers: Mostly Samoans travelling to American Samoa to visit relatives. There was only one other palagi on the flight and he looked surprised to see me. He was a missionary on his way to a religious convention with a T-shirt proclaiming “I found Jesus on the Hope Channel”.

How full: Chocka. I was, by a long way, the skinniest person on board.

Entertainment: Who needs an inflight entertainment system when you can look out of the window as the plane skims the coast of Upolu, then around the jagged, rainforest-cloaked peaks of Tutuila, American Samoa’s main island?

The service: None to speak of — the flight isn’t long enough, and good luck trying to get a trolley down the aisle anyway — but the pilot and co-pilot were pleasant.

The toilets: I suspect there isn’t one. The flight wasn’t long enough to find out.

Luggage: A 20kg limit for checked luggage and 5kg for cabin bags. Excess luggage is $3 per kg. As usual for an island-hopping flight, the passengers had to get on the scales as well as their luggage to make sure the aircraft was balanced. In this case passenger weights were quietly recorded in a flight log — unlike a memorable flight I once had in Fiji when the figures were shouted to a clerk on the other side of the terminal.

Airport experience: The flight left from Fagali’i domestic airport, 5km out of Apia (the international airport at Faleolo is about 40 minutes’ drive up the coast).

Fagali’i is pretty basic and gets crowded when a couple of flights leave at the same time but it does the job. Customs consists of a lady at a desk with a rubber stamp; there’s even a tiny duty-free store. Tafuna International Airport, near Pago Pago, is much bigger but it’s a breeze to get through when just 19 passengers arrive at once. Happily my visa waiver was accepted and I was waved through with American politeness (“this way, Sir!”).

The bottom line: If only all international flights were as cheap, and scenic, as this …

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