Start-up Marianas Pacific Airlines (Saipan) plans to launch operations connecting Saipan, the largest island in the Northern Mariana Islands - an unincorporated US territory in the Pacific Ocean - with Australia and South Korea.

According to reports, it plans to serve tourists primarily and hopes to establish Saipan as a popular tourist destination rivalling Bali. The airline initially plans to operate direct flights between Saipan and South Korea using a small fleet of B757s. It hopes authorities can establish a travel bubble between Saipan and Australia with Brisbane International targetted as the most likely destination.

According to The Saipan Tribune, the airline is backed by Pacific Rim, a family-owned construction and development company, which has brought an experienced team of aviation experts from Australia to help set up the airline, headed by Chief Executive Officer Neil Hansford.

Pacific Rim president Keith J. Stewart said the team had worked for about a year doing research and putting together the plans for Mariana Pacific Airlines. Initial plans had been for cargo operations, but it soon became apparent that there was a market for a full passenger and cargo service for the Commonwealth. He said that opportunities had arisen due to the market disruption caused by COVID-19, adding that Hansford had been working to establish an Australian tourism market for the Northern Mariana Islands. “The figures work,” said Stewart. “We have the right team, a steadfast commitment to the Commonwealth, and a real interest in making this a reality, not just for the Australian route,” he said.

Stewart said the plan was to provide air service between Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia, with additional routes in the future to include Hawaii.

Hansford told The Australian: “No Australian health authority is going to allow travel to Bali any time soon, same with the Philippines. Australians are going to want to go somewhere that’s Covid-safe, and Saipan ticks all the boxes.”

The airline will operate as a US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved scheduled service Part 121 air carrier, according to the company website. However, no application appears to have been lodged yet with the US Department of Transportation (DOT).

It ultimately plans to provide 52 flights a week on seven niche routes using three US-registered aircraft in the next three years. Routes being considered included Brisbane and Sydney Kingsford Smith in Australia; Guam International; Tokyo Narita and Osaka Kansai in Japan; and Seoul Incheon and Busan in South Korea.

For Stewart, it is a personal commitment to the islands. “I made the decision to make Saipan my home nearly four years ago. I have seen such great potential in these islands. Over the last year, with the pandemic and the slump in the economy it caused, my company took a hard look around to see where the opportunities were to help these islands reach their potential,” he said. “We brought on board a team to look at the various options for diversification from across the spectrum. We tried and pursued various ideas like manufacturing, tech, and healthcare and kept coming across the same bottleneck – lack of transportation,” he added. “We quickly learned that it would be cheaper to transport the same quantity of goods from Florida to China than it would to transport it from Saipan.”