Two hundred dollars worth of vouchers or $100 cash — that’s what Continental offered passengers willing to step aside on overbooked flights to Guam the weekend of Feb. 19. Travelers to Saipan willing to be ‘bumped’ from flights were offered $80 cash.

Despite the Marianas Visitors Bureau’s declaration that visitor arrivals have increased 2.6% for January 2005 compared to January 2004 Pacific Island Aviation made its last passenger flight on Feb. 9. “We left the market because there was not enough to be made in the market ” James Stowell vice president of safety for PIA said. Even with PIA’s pullout Cape Air and Freedom Air are still averaging daily occupancy of only 50%. Walter B. Dias staff vice president for sales and marketing for Continental Micronesia and Joaquin L. Flores general manager for Freedom Air said heavier departures are typically frequent on Fridays and Saturdays.

Cape Air the Continental Connections commuter service offers five to six flights a day between Guam Rota and Saipan — an estimated 385 seats.

Dias told the Journal that in a few months the airline will change flight schedules so that it is more accommodating for local travelers particularly those on the Guam to Rota route.

Dias said Continental has plans to increase Cape Air’s seating before April 2005 for connecting flights between Guam and Rota only to accommodate its marketing results. Travelers will be able to make reservations on the 46-seat ATR 42 aircraft instead of the current Cessna nine-seat aircraft.

The airline would like to see an overall increase in passengers. “Our real goal is to work hard to increase local traffic to Saipan Rota and Guam. In addition we’re going to use all of Continental resources in Asia and Japan; we will push the islands to promote day trips back and forth ” he said.

The Mariana Islands’ other commuter airline Freedom Air offers about 120 seats a day between islands. Freedom has no plans to add flights.

The airline operates a 30-seat Short 360 aircraft that services four flights between the islands almost daily. “When there is a fiesta funeral wedding or some kind of major event people want extra flights. What they don’t realize is you pick them up empty. Even if you go with a full load to a destination you still go back empty so you’re still flying half full ” Flores said.

Monty A. McDowell president and principal broker of Advance Management Inc. and chairman of the Guam Chamber of Commerce booked his first reservation on Cape Air’s morning flight on Feb. 18 to attend the Saipan Chamber of Commerce installation dinner. McDowell said the aircraft was full. Returning to Guam McDowell had to settle for the last Sunday evening flight because his desired early evening flight was booked. An occasional flyer to the islands McDowell said “It’s different. You (should?) have more variety of times to fly so a business person has the opportunity to go back and forth.”

Cape Air commuter services were launched in August 2004. Dias said that over the first couple of months Continental wasn’t particularly happy with performance due to customer service issues and minor aircraft operational problems such as air conditioning. Continental will be spending more advertising dollars in hopes of increasing general passenger loads on Cape Air flights. “In Japan it takes a year for wholesalers to buy into new products so we’re four to five months into it ” he said “and at some point you will see increased flights.”

Freedom Air has no immediate plans to increase flights. Flores said “Now the hotel rooms are booked. But you can’t promote Guam in Japan with millions of bucks knowing there is only a fixed infrastructure in Micronesia to support these people [tourists].”

The head of the Rota legislative delegation told Journal he will be meeting with Flores to find out if there are plans to add more flight services to Rota.

Sen. Diego M. Songao said the pullout of Pacific Island Aviation has cut Rota off.

He said PIA used to have three daily flights to Rota using 30-seater planes. Freedom Air has two flights while Cape Air only has one.

“We got cut off. We’re losing 90 people a day in one-way trips to Rota alone. I have written a letter to the owner and president of Freedom Air to see how we can expand flight services to the island ” Songao said.

Songao who also is CNMI Senate vice president said PIA’s pullout is also hurting the island’s tourism and causing disruptions in cargo supply. “There are so many people who want to go to Rota for several reasons. A lot of times too cargoes need to go to Rota but the planes are filled to capacity and some cargoes need to be left behind.”

Songao said the delegation had yet to get a confirmation on the meeting it was trying to schedule with Flores.

Susan Pascual manager for MITA Travel Agency in Saipan told the Journal crowding was not so bad as far as Saipan-Guam flights are concerned. Rota was affected by the PIA pullout she said.

“ So far we can still accommodate travelers ” she said. “They only have to book in advance. But Rota is affected because Cape Air only has one flight service to the island.”

Pascual said Cape Air has six Guam-Saipan-Guam flights; Freedom Air has two Guam-Rota-Saipan flights.

Pascual said people liked Freedom Air and PIA because flying those airlines saved them travel time. Their passengers were allowed to go through the commuter terminal whereas with Cape Air they were required to check in and check out at the international counter and go through a screening process for security purposes. MBJ