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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Celebrating the de-inauguration of CO 895

Jaime R. Vergara

It was a convenient turn to those who frequently traveled to Pea Eye to go directly from one airport to another. That was what the biweekly Continental Airlines flight 895 offered, a direct travel between Manila and Saipan. The previous option was to connect to an originating or a terminating flight in Guam. This was cumbersome and uncomfortable, not to mention a downgrade of aircraft and passenger care in the Saipan-Hagatna segment of the trip. Also, there were those who did not qualify for a transit visa through Guam so they had to travel through Japan or Korea. CO 895 served the CNMI medical referrals to Manila, NCLEX takers, and the alien contract workers who could not transit in Guam. The non-US visa holders particularly were Air Micronesia’s captive audience.

That came to an end Wednesday when the last direct Saipan-Manila flight was terminated.

To be sure, there are those of us who find going through Tokyo on NWA not only cheaper but would also provide time to finish a good read or polish a report during the long wait in Narita. There is the duty free shop offering in Tokyo that is considerably more extensive than that obtainable in our Chamorro neighbor’s shop, but the irritating, bewildering and unnecessary stopover in Nagoya precludes any liquid purchases that might be confiscated by security.

If one travels frequently enough to earn a WorldPerks entry into any of the STAR alliance lounges, however, well, what can one say? The ambience and amenities are great for doing reading or office work while in transit, or one can even take advantage of the shower privileges, should one have rushed into the flight from work and needed to really freshen up before a meeting!

When a lady passenger lamented the demise of the route, I optimistically opined that perhaps, with the federalization of immigration procedures in the CNMI, transit visas through Guam for Manila-bound passengers would no longer be too difficult to attain, or even be necessary. Of course, I did not have any factual basis for saying that, although it bears asking, “why would it still be difficult to transit through Guam?”

The above was similar to the answer I gave the Channel 2 MCV crew covering this termination flight when they showed up at the departure gate to ask for passengers’ responses to this event (not a TV viewer myself, I did not know that the young lady was covering the event for the ’Balita’ program, and style-wise, I would have given her my vintage Ilocano accent to the makatang Balagtas tongue).

Aboard this route-terminating flight, I kept asking one of the stewardesses when it was that I was going to get the Captain’s complimentary celebrative de-inaugurating champagne drink, and she was game enough to quip that if she had her way, all the passengers would get a bottle.

Her response was no comfort to this old coot who had the misfortune of sitting immediately behind the first class section where I enviously watched the unfolding of the table clothes and the drawing of the real china and utensils, along with what seems to be a bottomless supply of red or white wine. It was too close that the brain tricked the palate to actually experience the taste of the ample meal being served. Of course, my section only got our aluminum foil-enclosed and saran wrap-encased viands and treats.

The declared reason for the cancellation of the route was the decline in patronage as a result of the NCLEX being now available to Filipino nurses in Manila, instead of coming over to Saipan to take it. I counted 37 empty seats in the 153-seater plane, a 75 percent use, which is below the 80 percent occupancy I was made to understand necessary to make the company come out even on the cost of the flight.

The longer view, of course, is that the Continental Airlines service to Micronesia decline with the break-up of the US Trust Territories into smaller political units that no longer required the coordinative function of an administrative office like that played previously by Saipan.

It also did not help that the cost of aviation fuel has recently increased. Non-revenue earning routes would be chopped for economic reasons, as has happened across the board to all airlines in the region.

Ironically, this year marks the 40th year anniversary of Air Micronesia’s service to the region, and the stewardess’ spiel at the end of the flight was a word of gratitude to the passengers for joining the company in the celebration of this marked event. At that point, I was ready to barge into the cockpit to request for my champagne drink from the Captain, but I did not wish to tangle with the flight marshall who I am sure would have only been happy to display his/her anger management skills.

Organized to serve the then United Nations-mandated U. S. Trust Territories with its main headquarters on Saipan, Air Micronesia had a virtual monopoly as the contracted official carrier in the region. By sound economic practice, the service would have had to be commercially profitable in order to ensure continuance of service in the region. Missing the profitability factor, Continental Airlines that operates Air Mike understandably pulled out of the non-lucrative market as well. Dis-inaugurated CO 895 was not only ending a route, it also marked the withdrawal of resident Continental Airlines personnel from the Commonwealth. Henceforth, the Saipan market will be serviced by Guam, and retrenched Saipan staff that did not make the move will now join our enlarging count at the unemployment line.

Since 1997, the island economy began learning how to graciously let go of folding businesses in anticipation of the sunset years of the beleaguered garment industry. Sobering dusk came a decade later and the scramble for a viable economic base has produced internecine squabbles primarily in government, and a dire shortage of vision. The old metaphor was: Who will turn off the lights when the last sweatshop closes?

There has not been a shortage of doomsday predictions in our local dailies about the destination of our local economy. Perhaps, we just need to learn how to celebrate the de-inauguration of some of our taken-for-granted destinations. Then move on. A final caveat: it would not have hurt CO’s PR to have served that complimentary drink to accompany its twilight song between the Saipan-Manila skies!

CO will return me to Saipan on a milk run through Palau and Yap. I got the time and I had never been to either place before. See? When a door closes, somehow a new window of opportunity opens.

(Vergara is a regular contributor to the Saipan Tribune’s Opinion Section.)

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