The strangest route in the U.S. got a new lease on life, at least until the end of July, as the U.S. Transportation Department (DOT) has extended Samoa Airways’ flight between Pago Pago and the Manu’a Islands in American Samoa.
What makes this route so strange? It’s the only regularly scheduled cabotage route in the U.S. Federal law prohibits cabotage, or foreign airlines carrying revenue passengers between two points in the U.S. or its territories. In other words, an airline like, say, Japan Airlines can’t take passengers on in Honolulu and fly them on to Los Angeles. (The right to operate cabotage routes regularly comes up during bilateral air service negotiations, but it’s generally thought to be a lost cause to get the U.S. government to change its stance.) The federal government grants cabotage extremely rarely. The American Samoa route appears to be the only current cabotage route in the U.S.
Samoa Airways is owned and operated by the government of the country of Samoa.
Without its service, Samoa Airways said residents of the Manu’a Islands would not have access to medical care in Pago Pago, the capital of American Samoa. The alternative is for the residents of the Manu’a Islands to make the trip by boat, a 60-mile, often arduous journey that can take up to eight hours. Boat service isn’t regularly scheduled and is sporadic. In its filing with the DOT, Samoa Airways claimed that passengers have died during the sea crossing, adding that the flight takes less than an hour.
The DOT approved Samoa Airways’ application through July 31, with the option to extend it through February of next year. Samoa Airways must cease flying the route within five days of a U.S. carrier starting service.
No U.S. carrier currently operates the route nor has the ability to do so. The last U.S. airline that did fly the route, Inter Island, appears to have gone defunct, although neither Samoa Airways nor the DOT could determine if Inter Island plans to resume operations. DOT said revoked Inter Island’s authority to operate passenger flights due to “dormancy.”
Samoa Airways has served notice to United Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, and other U.S. carriers that it intends to continue flying between the two parts of American Samoa. None has objected or is prepared to fly between the two destinations.
Samoa Airways said it will operate flights three-five times per week for the duration of its exemption period. It flies between 200-300 passengers per month on the route, it said. The carrier also said it will fly medical evacuation flights on an as-needed basis.
The story got even more interesting late last year when Talofa Airways, also of the country of Samoa, applied to fly the Pago Pago-Manu’a Islands route up to five days per week, arguing that it would complement Samoa Airways’ route and ensure that residents of the Manu’a Islands would have more regular access to the territory’s capital. DOT approved Talofa Airways’ request late last year for a period of 180 days.
Talofa Airways did not begin the flight, however, as American Samoa’s Covid regulations have prevented it from establishing a crew base in Pago Pago. Subsequently, the carrier has suspended all scheduled service until Samoa reopens its borders, the airline said.