I have a T-shirt that is 40 years old this year. That may not be a record for T-shirt longevity but it’s pretty good all the same. It shares its birthday with Air Niugini – also 40 this year – and that is no coincidence. It was sold by word-of-mouth in 1973, when Air Niugini was being launched as Papua New Guinea’s own national carrier, and it quickly sold out in Port Moresby. It was subversive, it was cheeky, it was mildly risque, it was spot-on funny and it tapped into years of frustration with Qantas, Australia’s national carrier. Until Air Niugini came along, Qantas had a monopoly on international flights between Australia and Port Moresby.
Air Niugini wanted to do more than just compete with Qantas, it wanted to beat it and grab the lion’s share of the market. Trouble is, 12% of the airline was owned by Qantas and it is a bit tricky trying to undermine a part-owner. The advertising T-shirt that someone came up with (I won’t mention names) was sheer genius. A marketing masterpiece.
The front and back of the shirt carry the same message:
Don’t stuff around in a Q (i.e. queue but also Qantas)
use the Air Niugini connection.
The front image is of three kangaroos humping each other, with the middle kangaroo exclaiming “Qantastic”, a buzz word invented by someone to advertise the Qantas experience. The back image has three koala bears humping in a queue, with the middle koala grumbling, “I hate being stuffed around”.
You had to be a PNG resident at that time perhaps to fully appreciate the joke.
For years, the story had been doing the rounds of Port Moresby, among expatriates and locals alike, that Qantas over-booked their flights to guarantee they were always full. Whether it was an urban myth (most probable explanation) or just a poor booking system at that time, I cannot say. All I know is that a lot of people believed it to be true. Departing passengers developed the habit of getting to Jackson’s Airport hours ahead of the scheduled midday flight to Sydney, where they waited patiently in queues to make sure they got their seat allocations.
Then it was across to the open verandah at the Gateway Hotel, where they would drink for the rest of the morning until it was time to go back to the airport for their customs check. The upshot was that many travellers were already pretty pickled by the time they boarded. The T-shirts got the message out that no one would be bumped off an Air Niugini flight and it did the trick. From then on, many people used the Air Nuigini connections to Brisbane and Cairns. Mind you, this was all a very, very long time ago. Qantas is still one of the greatest and safest airlines in the world.
Ancient souvenirs aside, I do also have a couple of old photos from the early years of Air Niugini that I would like to share with you. They were all taken by the late Denis Williams.
A lot has happened in the last 40 years. Ansett Airlines and TAA no longer exist and Qantas is 25% owned by British Airways and 75% privatised. Air Niugini, on the other hand, although it has had its shaky years, is fully owned by the PNG government and still going strong. It now flies to about 35 different destinations, some national and some international. It’s a great achievement. Happy Birthday.