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By John Woods

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, April 4) – Another milestone was reached in Cook Islands aviation history yesterday with the start of the new direct service between Rarotonga, Cook Islands and Tahiti, French Polynesia.

The joint venture between national airlines Air Rarotonga and Air Tahiti was launched as a twice a week service between the two Polynesian countries.

The Tuesday and Saturday return service has been launched to replace Air New Zealand's now defunct service between Auckland, Rarotonga and Los Angeles. Later this week Air New Zealand will launch its new direct Los Angeles-Rarotonga weekly service.

Yesterday's inaugural flight GZ035, taking 2 hours 45 minutes, brought a party of nearly 30 French Polynesian media and dignitaries including minister of transport Moehau Teuitehai and directors and executives of Air Tahiti.

They spent a few hours greeting and meeting local government and tourism leaders, took a quick bus tour around Rarotonga and lunched at the Tamarind Restaurant before departing with Cook Islands prime minister Jim Marurai, who will spend a few days off duty in Tahiti before returning on Saturday.

Air Tahiti's commercial director, Patrick Martineau, said initially the new service would operate twice a week, but the frequency would be reviewed in August to see if passenger numbers and forward bookings justified return flights on both Tuesdays and Saturdays.

Martineau said the two airlines had estimated there was potential for about 80 passengers per week in each direction.

This was an ideal starting number for the service using Air Tahiti's ATR turbo aircraft, of which it has 10 with seating capacities of 60 to 66.

He said the new service to Rarotonga fitted perfectly with the airline's current schedules within French Polynesia, and was actually closer in flying time than two of its domestic services.

Prime Minister Marurai told the lunch gathering that his government wholeheartedly supported the joint venture. It was an initiative that would continue the air link between the two countries, and a venture that would sustain tourism development between them as well.

Marurai said he congratulated the two airlines and offered best wishes for success in establishing a long-lasting relationship.

French Polynesia transport minister Moehau Teuitehai said on behalf of his president he congratulated the airlines on finding a solution to keep the connection between French Polynesia and the Cook Islands. "We are the same people, with the same family, and I hope this is the first step in a long relationship," he said.

Air Rarotonga managing director Ewan Smith said it was a very significant day for the two companies "in that this route has come home to the airlines of Tahiti and Cook Islands".

Smith joked that he had told Air New Zealand manager David Bridge that "once we get it right, you are never going to get it back".

Air Tahiti chief executive Marcel Galenon, in thanking Smith for a gift of a tivaevae wall hanging with pictures of flowers from the two countries, said, "Thank you for your hospitality... we are brothers, and it is a good thing for us."

Cook Islands News

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