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SUVA, Fiji (Oceania Flash, July 5) – New Caledonia's domestic airline Air Calédonie (AirCal) has taken delivery of the first new generation ATR series 500 aircraft aimed at rejuvenating its ageing fleet.

The plane is part of an order for three new turbo-prop ATR series 500 aircraft (1 ATR 42-500 and 2 ATR 72-500) that was placed in October last year for an estimated fifty million US dollars, the ATR company said in a release on Friday.

The other two planes will be delivered in 2007.

AirCal Chairman Nidoïsh Naisseline travelled to ATR's headquarters in Toulouse (South West of France) last week to take delivery of the first aircraft.

Naisseline said the purchase comes as part of AirCal's restructuring exercise (as recommended by an Air France Consulting review), after years of unprecedented losses and financial woes, perceived to be caused by heavy salary costs and an ageing fleet.

In 2003, AirCal had to sell one of its four ATR.

"Our current aircraft are old and we spend a lot on maintenance. With these new aircraft, in fact, we're going to be able to save at least one million US dollars per year", Naisseline said last year while announcing the purchase of the new aircraft.

The current three 48-seater AirCal ATRs are all between ten and fifteen years of age.

A fourth aircraft, a 19-seater Dornier, is mainly used for links to the islands of Tiga (Loyalty group, Northeast of the main island) and Bélep (far North of the main island) and should be retained for some time.

Naisseline said the new planes, to be delivered between 2006 and 2007, will also allow AirCal to increase its seat capacity.

Naisseline also hinted at future Pacific regional developments: "This is also a tourism development tool. Why not use them to fly to the Cook Islands or Vanuatu?", he said.

In Vanuatu's Southern island of Tanna, a French-funded airport, which was completed in the late 1990s, was designed to the specifications of an ATR.

Another possible use of the new ATR would be, Naisseline said, to evacuate persons to Australia for medical treatment.

The new planes are all fitted with the latest technologies, including a Multi-Purpose Computer (MPC) navigational aid device, which ATR (for Avions de Transport Régional) describes as « the newest technological innovations in the field navigation aid tools ».

ATR CEO Filippo Bagnato said he believed the planes were « key element » in Pacific airlines' development strategies and their regional networks because they were « perfectly adapted to inter-island traffic ».

ATR is based in France's southwestern town of Toulouse.

The company claims to be « the world leader in the 50 to 70-seat turboprop market ».

Last year, Air Calédonie celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.

It claims to cover ninety eight percent of New Caledonia's domestic network and to transport, yearly, a volume of 280,000 passengers and over 1,500 tonnes of freight.

Meanwhile, French Polynesia's domestic airline, Air Tahiti, has also announced late last year that it would purchase one more 68-seat French-made new generation ATR 72-500 aircraft, with a scheduled delivery in June 2008.

The French Pacific company said the addition of one more aircraft to its domestic fleet was mainly to cater for increasing demand on the local market, especially on one of its main tourist sites, Bora Bora island.

Air Tahiti has also signed an option to purchase a second plane from ATR.

In 2004, Air Tahiti has placed an order for five turboprop 500 series ATR.

It currently operates ten similar aircraft (four ATR 42-500 and six ATR 72-500).

Air Tahiti, French Polynesia's main domestic airline, on a typical year, flies an average of some 720,000 passengers between the main island and Tahiti and some 42 other outer islands, on an area equivalent to that of Europe.

July 6, 2006

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