The South Pacific Air Transport Council
by Roger Meyer

When, in 1944, the course of World War II had become evident, the allied nations acted on a strong awareness that an international organisation would be needed for the orderly development of civil aviation. To this end a conference of representatives of allied and neutral states was held in Chicago from 1 November to 7 December.

The Chicago conference produced the now historic Convention on Civil Aviation which replaced the Paris Convention of 1919 and the Havana Convention of 1928 and established a permanent body designed to foster international civil aviation – ICAO.

While the Chicago conference was in session delegates from British Commonwealth countries took the opportunity to meet and discuss civil aviation as it affected their mutual interests. A result of this discussion led to the creation of a permanent organisation – the Commonwealth Air Transport Council. The CATC held its first meeting in London on 9 July 1945. The Council thus formed was an advisory body, to provide for an exchange of views between Commonwealth countries on the progress and development of civil aviation communications and for the interchange of advice on such civil aviation matters as were referred to it.

At the first CATC meeting it was proposed to establish a regional council to deal with problems particular to the South Pacific. Following a meeting in Wellington, New Zealand in February – March 1946, the South Pacific Air Transport Council (SPATCO) came into existence. The Council was charged with responsibility for coordinating regional services in the South Pacific area, the trans-Tasman service, and the trans-Pacific Trunk Route traversing the region. Membership of SPATCO was open to the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Fiji and the Western Pacific High Commission, with Canada as an Observer. The Australian Minister for Civil Aviation was to hold the position of permanent chairman.

Two Standing Committees were set up to make recommendations on technical matters, viz. a Committee for Air Navigation and Ground Organisation (S.P. CANGO) and a Committee of Meteorologists (S.P. COMET).

The principal problem for the Council was the maintenance and operation of facilities in United Kingdom territory in the South Pacific area required for the trans-Pacific air services. While the Australian, New Zealand and UK governments were responsible for the development of facilities within their own territories, the UK was reluctant to fund the full cost of facilities in the Pacific area. The Australian and New Zealand governments therefore agreed that they would provide the technical services and staff for the whole area.

The first meeting of SPATCO was held in Parliament House, Canberra, from 18 to 20 December 1946. The Hon. A.S Drakeford, MP, Australian Minister for Civil Aviation was elected Chairman of the Committee. The main conclusions of the meeting were:

  • The reports of the Standing Committees were accepted, and were further charged with reviewing the scale of standards of ground facilities.
  • A Trans-Pacific Committee was to supervise, on behalf of the partner Governments, the operation of BCPA (British Commonwealth Pacific Airlines Ltd) services.
  • Similarly, a Trans Tasman Committee would supervise the TEA (Tasman Empire Airways Ltd) services.
  • Australia and New Zealand considered contributing 25% each for the provision of essential ground organisation in UK territory in the Pacific Area.

The list of those who represented Australia at the Second Meeting in Canberra in August 1947 reveals some well-known DCA and civil aviation personalities.

Hon. A.S. Drakeford, M.P., - Minister for Civil Aviation
Air Marshal R. Williams – Director-General of Civil Aviation
Captain E.C. Johnston – Assistant Director-General of Civil Aviation
Mr G.P.N. Watt – Acting Secretary, Treasury
Mr A. Hepburn – Director of Airports, DCA
Mr A.W. Coles – Chairman, BCPA
Mr Hudson Fysh – Managing Director, Qantas Empire Airways Ltd.
Mr W.A. Dwyer – Superintendent (Aviation and Transport) Meteorological Bureau
Mr A.J.S. Scott – Superintendent, Economic Studies, DCA
Mr A. Loomes – Department of External Affairs
Mr D.G. Anderson – Airways Supervisor, DCA
Mr D.S. Graham – Principal Examiner of Airmen, DCA
Mr S. Wellard – Chief Investigation Officer, Finance Branch, DCA
Mr H. Poulton – Legal Officer, DCA
Mr H.E. Swann – International Liaison Officer. Secretary to the Delegation.


Among other agreements, the Council decided to re-equip Tasman Empire Airways with four Solent flying boats, subject to the aircraft meeting specified performance guarantee.

A major decision was to investigate the site of an international airport at Fiji as a stop-over and refuelling point for the trans-Pacific Trunk Route between Australia (or New Zealand) and Honolulu. The airport was at Nadi, about 200 Km from Suva.

The third meeting was held at Wellington in November and December 1948, at which Canada was made a full Member. Click here to see a photo of delegates to the fourth meeting in Melbourne in May 1950.

By the late 1950s, Australia was contributing 40% of the capital costs, particularly in the development of Nandi Airport to accommodate turbo-jet aircraft across the Pacific. The tenth Meeting of the Council in Melbourne in 1956 approved the upgrading of the airport to Boeing 707 standards, including the provision of navigational aids, engineering services, housing and staff accommodation.

Other important infrastructure services provided by SPATCO in the 1950s were:
a) A communications station at Nadi as part of the world-wide Aeronautical Fixed Telecommunications Network (AFTN) and radio teletype circuits to Sydney, Auckland, Honolulu and Canton.
b) Air traffic control, through a flight information centre which covered an area from the Equator to Norfolk Island and from the New Caledonia at Tahiti. The centre also provided search and rescue action in the area, and a local Approach and Aerodrome Control service.
c) Meteorological facilities through a wide network of stations. Information on hurricane warnings was an important part of this service. At many remote locations, local native observers were given a small radio transmitter to pass on readings from the anemometer, wet and dry bulb thermometers, barometers, and also to pass cloud information.

The work of SPATCO continued, though on a diminishing scale, until the completion of Nandi International Airport. The 27th Meeting of SPATC in 1980 agreed to disburse its remaining assets to member nations, and to disband the organisation, its purpose well served.


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