Flights that once connected Guam to its neighboring islands, including Saipan and Palau, have been reduced to levels unseen in decades for this region of the Pacific.
Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Gov. Ralph Torres has asked United Airlines to suspend flights between Saipan and Guam as part of its efforts to minimize exposure to residents of further cases of COVID-19. The flight cancellations will be effective from April 6 to April 30, according to a press release from the Commonwealth Ports Authority.
There are two confirmed cases of the respiratory illness in the CNMI and officials are awaiting word on tests for a 70-year-old man whom officials suspect may have had the virus. He died Monday.
"With two confirmed case in the CNMI, continued inbound arrivals, however limited, diverts desperately needed resources away from addressing our immediate need to contain the further spread of COVID-19 in our community,” the CNMI release stated.
The April 3 flight is canceled but there will be one last set of flights between Guam and the CNMI on April 5, CNMI officials stated.
CNMI officials said U.S. Postal Service, air shipment of cargo to and from Guam, and medevac transport for health emergencies won't be disrupted by the temporary suspension of the flights.
Daily transport of mail between the CNMI and Guam is serviced by Micronesian Air Cargo.
Guam officials have said United is expected to operate what are called lifeline flights based on need, and this applies to Narita, Saipan and Honolulu.
For decades airlines including Pan Am, and then Air Micronesia, carried people and cargo between the islands in the Micronesian region. The latter airline would later become a part of Continental before becoming today's United Airlines.
COVID-19 has changed that. In addition to flights to Saipan being stopped, flights to Palau have been temporarily interrupted. The last flight was on March 26, during which United Airlines flew an empty plane to the west Pacific archipelago to pick up outbound passengers, according to Palau Minister of Infrastructure, Industries and Commerce Charles Obichang.
In a letter to United Airlines regional director Art Day, Obichang reiterated that Palau will be establishing a quarantine facility, setting up required procedures, and obtaining test kits for COVID-19, ensuring that it can safely handle arriving passengers and prevent the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19 in the country.
The island nation is still receiving cargo service for goods via Asia Pacific Airlines flights.
United Airlines flights are expected to resume between Guam and Palau on April 9, Obichang stated.
The A.B. Won Pat International Airport, known for many years as the gateway to Asia and Micronesia, will be the quietest it has been for decades.
"All flights are suspended with the exception of United operating on a much-decreased scale," Rolenda Lujan Faasuamalie, A.B. Won Pat Guam International Airport Authority marketing administrator, said earlier this week.
United Airlines Flight 197 from Narita, Japan, earlier this week was likely one of the last international arrivals to Guam in the near term.