A remote airstrip in Papua New Guinea in a valley
Photo: Rural Airstrip Agency

An isolated community in PNG prepared the ground for MAF flights with some essential technical advice delivered through WhatsApp messages.

Story by Matt Painter


Working remotely means many different things for different people. For Jonny Watson, who works as a part-time Technical Advisor for the Rural Airstrip Agency (RAA), it means using WhatsApp to advise remote airstrip communities in Papua New Guinea on their airstrip maintenance issues.

“Somehow they call us, sometimes my number has been passed on by an MAF pilot, or it’s an airstrip we’ve been to in the past,” he says.

A man works on his phone at his desk
Photo: Jonny Watson

Jonny has a background in engineering geology and has been in PNG for six years with his wife Glenys who serves as an MAF pilot. Founded as a public private partnership between MAF and the PNG government, the RAA helps communities to maintain and restore their vitally important rural airstrips to bring basic services to communities in PNG.

As MAF flies to some communities that are only accessible by air, Jonny relies on occasional messages with local leaders to help advise on their efforts to maintain their vital airstrips.

“I send a message, wait a week, and if they climb up a mountain and happen to have credit on their phone, they can receive our advice. It’s not without challenges, but you can’t send images by radio, and language difficulties can be helped greatly by images,” he says.

An MAF plane on a remote airstrip with crowd of village people
Photo: Rural Airstrip Agency

“People wanting help with their airstrip sometimes just walk into Goroka, even if it’s a two-day walk. It’s quite amazing. The effect of word of mouth is powerful, people hear that we can help and just rock up at the office. Perhaps once a month we’ll have someone requesting assistance or advice.

“At any time we’ll have three or four airstrips that we’re communicating with via WhatsApp. Recently we’ve communicated with people in Bulago, Blackwara, Auwi, Aiyu, Sikoi and Mengino. Some of these places we might have had someone from RAA previously on the ground, but many not.”

I send a message, wait a week, and if they climb up a mountain and happen to have credit on their phone, they can receive our advice.
Jonny Watson, Rural Airstrip Agency

In 2023, MAF flew to 185 locations in PNG, but communities work hard to maintain the rural airstrips so that they are safe for our aircraft to access.

Although there’s no substitute for being on site, it’s not easy to visit the many remote airstrips that the RAA assists, so Jonny is glad to give guidance using messaging apps.

A map of Mengino
Map: Matt Painter

“At Mengino we had issues with puddles of standing water on the airstrip. We were able to recommend more work be done using WhatsApp. If communities like this weren’t able to get our advice, their airstrip may still be closed,” he adds.

“I really enjoy using the gifts God has given me to help people.”

A man clapping and smiling
Photo: Kowara Bell
Jonny Watson at the reopening of Auwi airstrip in Hela Province, Papua New Guinea, January 2024