15 August 2013

Real Tonga's MA60 - What is the Real Story?

The Real Tonga MA60 debacle continues to boil away. Below is an extract from an interview with Tonga's Deputy Prime Minister which appeared in Islands Business.

New Zealand recently punished Tonga by withdrawing its multimillion dollar tourism aid, following the island kingdom’s acceptance of a gift from China in the form of a Chinese manufactured Xian MA60 aircraft. In an interview with ISLANDS BUSINESS in Fiji last month, Tonga’s deputy prime minister Samiu Vaipulu lashed out strongly at New Zealand, reminding it not to put its nose into local affairs. “We may go to China or we have some reserve funds but we must find a way to do it,” Vaipulu said when asked what the options are for Tonga, following New Zealand’s decision. “We just don’t want anyone to interfere with our internal matters. They should not. And they have done that for years. And that’s what Fiji did (resist interference) and we should do the same thing. “What we don’t want is New Zealand telling us what to do and interfering with our internal matters when they know very well there was a New Zealand company that left on its own without Tonga chasing them.

New Zealand’s foreign minister Murray McCully “should go to China and talk with the Chinese. What we’ve seen with this aircraft is it’s safe and reliable. In fact, I am in negotiations with China for two more aircrafts. They are from another Chinese company but the same type of aircraft that was used by Air Fiji. “The whole idea of getting this aircraft was so that there can be competition to benefit our people because that is what we want to do. Develop our people and our private sector. But they (Chathams Pacific) say the market is too small and I said no, it’s the equipment that you use. Their aircraft is aged which uses a lot of fuel and that would affect the operation. Now when we have a new aircraft, they say it’s not safe,” Vaipulu said.
So did the NZ Government act correctly? Undoubtedly there have been a number of MA60 crashes. However, as has been pointed out in a number of comments in recent posts on this blog the real problem is the not the aircraft itself but the operation of the aircraft. This is a fair comment but I still have the lingering question as to why the aircraft hasn't received US or UK certification... what are the issues that preclude this? What the evolving news stories and comments have revealed are two other more pressing questions... whether the aircraft is really suited for Tonga, especially the short runway at Ha'apai and for that matter for operations into Vava'u. The other question raised in the comments is the standard of the flight crews.
Mr Vaipulu said of the Chathams Pacific operation that "the market is too small and I said no, it’s the equipment that you use. Their aircraft is aged which uses a lot of fuel and that would affect the operation. Now when we have a new aircraft, they say it’s not safe.” However, a two airline system has to date not worked in Tonga, especially given the seasonal nature of the tourist traffic. Chathams Pacific's Craig Emeny talked of subsidising the Tongan air service during the off-season. A positional paper on Domestic Air Services in Tonga that was on the www.tonganz.net site earlier this year indicated that while the Convair was and would make a moderate return on investment the MA60 would make a loss!
I think the NZ Government might be right to be suspicious of the MA60 operation but I think its reasoning as to what is wrong with the MA60 might be flawed. Maybe the aircraft itself is not the issue! That this is developing into a political matter loses sight of the key questions which I think are...
Is the MA60 really a suitable aircraft for the Tongan air service? In other words can it operate safely and economically into the Tongan airfields?
Is the provision of flight crew up to an acceptable standard? This certainly seems to be a key issue not only for the MA60 crashes but also a number of Boeing 737 crashes as listed in the comments of earlier posts. Questions have been raised on this in the comments of these two posts... http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.co.nz/2013/08/tongas-ma60-airborne.html and http://3rdlevelnz.blogspot.co.nz/2013/08/tongas-ma60-airborne.html 
So what is the real story? I'll leave you to be the judge


  1. Only time will tell if the MA60 will be suitable for operating in Tonga.

  2. Personally I would love to see Chathams Pacific return to Tonga, they were a great little airline. I have nothing against the MA60. The Convair is a reliable aircraft, and has been serving our community out here on the Chathams for over a decade.

  3. Great post Steve. Well done.

  4. I doubt there is anything wrong with the MA60 itself. I think you may find a reason for it not being certified in us / uk is because there are none in operation there. Simple. Same as here they go on about the aircraft not being certified in NZ, thats because there are none in operation here. If someone wanted one here, say Mt Cook wanted a bunch to replace their ATRs then they would get certified.