The managing director of Air Rarotonga was made a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit (CNZM) for services to the Cook Islands business and tourism sectors.
He is proud of how far the company he founded has come: “Over the years we have survived oil price shocks, the global financial crisis, cyclones, pandemics and other challenges along the way.”
But most of all, Smith is proud of Air Rarotonga’s push to train and develop local staff, with almost 100 per cent of the airline’s employees now being Cook Islanders or residents.
That’s a tad ironic, as Smith himself was – once – an expat. The 68-year-old was born in Wellington, New Zealand, and spent most of his upbringing in the “sheep town” of Taihape.
He became fascinated with aeroplanes at a young age, and has now been in the aviation industry for more than 50 years. He moved to the Cook Islands in 1973 at the age of 22, initially as a pilot for Cook Islands Airways.
Upon his arrival, Aitutaki and Penrhyn were the only islands other than Rarotonga to have airports. “The airport was just opening, and this was the start of modern aviation that has shaped the Cook Islands economy and the lives of many Cook Islanders today,” Smith say.
He was eventually appointed chief pilot for Cook Islands Airways and qualified as a licenced aircraft engineer, after completing an apprenticeship with Aero Engine Services in Hamilton, New Zealand.
This enabled him to ensure Cook Islands Airway’s first aircraft was maintained to a high standard.
It was Smith who flew that airline’s first domestic service between Rarotonga and Aitutaki on November 25, 1973.
In 1978, Smith went into partnership with Ross Hunter, Vara Hunter, and Ian Rhodes, Air New Zealand’s station manager on Rarotonga, establishing Air Rarotonga.
He admits that owning an airline has presented him with some unique challenges along the way, saying: “I read a saying that said, starting an airline is like jumping off a cliff and having to assemble an aeroplane on the way down.
“There were no career pathways or opportunities for Cook Islanders to become involved in aviation until we first embarked on training local pilots. This expanded into other technical and operational areas as well as commercial and administrative airline functions,” Smith says.
“Today the airline is staffed and managed end to end by qualified and experienced Cook Islanders, many who have spent most of their working lives growing with Air Raro, and some who are second generation.
“Others have gone on to careers with prominent international airlines. It is that aspect of our development more than anything else, that has been crucial to the commercial survival of the airline and which guarantees our part in a sustainable future for inter-island and regional aviation and tourism.”
Smith, who is also chairman of the Cook Islands Tourism Corporation, says finding out about the honour came as a “complete surprise”.
He is both honoured and humbled by the award.
“It is my privilege to lead a wonderful group of Cook Islanders who over the past 40 years have helped build Air Raro into a success serving both the tourism industry and our remote island communities in the way that it does.”
Smith recognises the company would not be where it is today without the assistance of others. “To them, my partners in business and my colleagues at Cook Islands Tourism Corporation – thank you for making me look good today. And of course, to my family who have lived and breathed aviation all their lives at home, whether they wanted to or not – this is for you.”