Difficult to understand profit and business when the pari system is our entire existence

By Mabel Doge Luhan

It’s been almost four months since MVA’s Chris Concepcion told the Marianas Variety that Hong Kong Airlines will resume flights to Saipan in November 2023. Except in the middle of the interview that became February 2024. February 2024 is here, and this year I remembered to keep my falcons indoors, to prevent any more adverse events with groundhogs. So this February, my falcons aren’t in Saipan’s skies — and neither are the airplanes of Hong Kong Airlines!

Oh, right. But now those flights are going to resume in March, according to the interview of Chris Concepcion in the Groundhog Day edition of the Marianas Variety. Well, “mid or latter half of March,” actually. Right.

A question for MVA, since the Variety would never ask: Do you know what a “Chinese no” is? You got a Chinese no last year when Hong Kong Airlines told you, after backing out on the November resumption schedule, that they’d “maybe resume the flights in February,” and you got another Chinese no now when they told you “maybe March.” Chinese people will never tell you “no” straight-up. It will always be “maybe next month.” And you’re seeing exactly that. You want their promises to be true, but they’re just going to keep telling you “maybe in a few months” until you get the message and go away.

But the issue is deeper. Why do you think an airline decides to fly or not to fly to a destination? Do you think it’s based on how often a representative from that destination’s government calls them and visits them?  Or do you think it’s based on maximizing profits? In fact, if the airline is run as a business, it is legally required to choose its routes based on maximizing profits. (Ever heard of Jeff Smisek? He got fired as CEO of United, and got into trouble with the law, for flying a South Carolina route as a personal favor to a politician.)

In light of that, what can you do to change the routes Hong Kong Airlines flies? All you could theoretically do is convince it that you know more about profit forecasting than they do, and show them that they’re wrong about the profit potential of flying to Saipan. Can you do that? Airlines have the best people in finance and statistics working on these problems for them, full time, backed up by big databases and computing power — do you think you can tell airlines anything they don’t already know about the profit potential of a route?

But let’s take a step even farther back. Why are we always so obsessed with getting more routes and “more seats” to the CNMI? Have you ever gone on vacation (I mean excluding MVA travel)? Do you choose your vacation destination based on how many seats are available on flights there? Have you ever run into a situation where you wanted to vacation somewhere, but there were simply no seats on flights there? Ever?

Do you think there are thousands or millions of people hiding somewhere who want to visit Saipan, but are just waiting for more “seats” and more flights, because they can’t possibly get on a flight here now? If not, then why are we so obsessed with getting more seats?

If those people existed, it would be in the airlines’ business interest to run flights here, wouldn’t it? If those people existed, the airlines would be doing everything possible to take their money — and wouldn’t need you to be hounding them about it.

We sometimes forget that outside the CNMI, things work on a profit principle, not based on patronage and personal relationships. It is indeed difficult to remember that when we live in a system where everything is based on who you’re related to and where you’ve put in your dues and who owes you a favor. But that is really not how airlines (at least not ones run as businesses) run. Airlines are not going to decide on a Saipan route based on how many dinners you invited them to. Oh, their staff will gladly attend those five-star dinners. But when it’s decision time for flight routes, it’s going to be profit forecasts, not dinners and MVA Powerpoints that sway them.

The MVA goes at things completely backwards. The reason there are no tourists coming to the CNMI is that tourists don’t want to come to the CNMI. It’s not because they want to come but there are no flights. Again: if there were ready passengers but no flights, the airlines would solve that problem solely on a profit-maximizing basis. And even more importantly, if nobody wants to come to the CNMI, then running more flights here will not change our tourist numbers.

What will actually change our tourist numbers? Actually improving our destination, in whatever way. MVA does do small, tiny things in that capacity, but really, those are all things that should be (but generally aren’t) done by other departments, such as DPW and DLNR. All tourists want from Saipan is clean beaches with usable bathrooms and no roaming thieves, and maybe an airport where the bathrooms don’t look like the third world and water doesn’t cost $4.  It’s pretty simple, but it’s still much harder to execute on improving our destination than on just begging the airlines to have more flights.

If you owned a restaurant that had no customers, would you: 1) Put in more tables, 2) Build a bigger parking lot, 3) Invite some taxi drivers out to a $200/plate dinner, or would you 4) Improve your restaurant’s menu and service?

Most of what MVA does is putting in more tables, expanding the parking lot, and courting taxi drivers. If we wanted to improve tourism numbers, we should improve our menu and service — in whatever way necessary. Travel providers go where the customers want to go, not the other way around.

Again, this can be difficult to understand when we live in a patronage-based command economy such as the CNMI’s, but once there is demand for travel to Saipan, the problem of airline “seats” will take care of itself. Airlines don’t need anyone to come over and give them face in order to fly to our destination. And similarly, nobody is suddenly going to decide to visit us just because there are more flights or more “seats” available.

This is all so simple, but it flies in the face of everything MVA does. Because everything the MVA does flies in the face of common business sense.

Stop worrying about which airlines are flying here. Stop courting the airlines. Start courting the tourists — not with sweepstakes and slogans, but with an actually better destination.

Amazon didn’t build their retail empire on taking UPS and FedEx executives out to expensive dinners. Amazon built its success based on customers who want to shop at Amazon and nowhere else. Because Amazon is so popular with customers, it gets to set the terms with UPS and FedEx, not the other way around.

Hawaii and the Maldives also don’t need to suck up to airlines. They have the tourism product that passengers want, and the airlines have to play by their rules.

We have the potential as a destination to be no worse than Hawaii and the Maldives. We could be great too. Are we going to utilize that potential, or will we be forever beggars asking the airlines for crumbs?


Mabel Doge Luhan is a woman of loose morals. She resides in Kagman V, where she pursues her passions of crocheting, beatboxing, and falconry.


  • CNMI Lawyer

      02/07/2024 at 10:40 PM

    This is the best summary of the CNMI tourist situation and MVA’s role in “destination building” that I have read in a very long time.

    Until we fix the restrooms at tourist locations, prevent crimes against tourists, and clean up our trash, etc., the junkets and false advertising by MVA are actually making things worse.

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