Over ten thousand miles across the oceans from these shores a quiet celebration marks 50 years of continuous service to the Pacific islands of Micronesia of the Island Hopper.
On 16th May 1968, Air Micronesia’s inaugural flight, a Boeing 727-100 known as Ju-Ju took off on its inaugural flight from Saipan to Honolulu making seven island stops across 4,300 miles of ocean. These were pioneering aviation days. Some runways were constructed out of coral and the underside of the aircraft had to be protected with Teflon and the engines required frequent maintenance for coral ingestion.
Operating in and out of the short island runways is a test of real flying for any pilot. The island runways can be longer than the island itself at its widest point stretching right out into the ocean on a coral reef. You have to land hard and early with a quick reverse thrust or you’ll run out of runway!
Travelling on that inaugural flight as it landed on the island of Truk (now known as Chuuk) was the president of Air Micronesia, Dominick Renda. He was quoted in the L.A. Times as saying “I saw a lot of money change hands right after we stopped. The islanders were betting on whether we’d make it”.
Fifty years on, the service, now a fully owned subsidiary of United after its merger with Continental Airlines, is still known locally as “Air Mike”. The runways have proper paving so there is no longer the problem from coral ingestion. The flights are now operated by a Boeing 737 with inflight entertainment.
In 2008 the volatility in the oil market put on hold some ambitious plans that Air Mike had for expansion but the merger with United Airlines has now resulted in new routes for the airline.
United currently flies to 18 destinations out of its GUM hub. The only major change from the Continental Micronesia network is the addition of service to Shanghai in 2014, marking the first time the island of Guam has direct service to mainland China.
The original Island Hooper GUM – HNL route is still there providing its vital lifeline. This service currently takes place three times per week and lasts over 14 hours. In addition, it requires an extra pilot and flight attendant, a mechanic, and spare parts in case of mechanical problems.
Air Mike employees and have great stories to tell about the early days and how Continental was, and now United, still is a lifeline for these remote locations providing among other things, critical medical emergency transfers on the Island Hopper.
Few Americans are aware that Guam is an American territory – captured from the Spanish in 1898 – and because of its position beyond the International Date Line it boasts the title “Where America’s Day Begins”.
If you have clients that are looking for that trip of a lifetime then put together an Island Hopper adventure that will prove your skills as a real travel agent.