08 May 2015

I bet Craig is glad he dropped Tonga

Tonga has been struggling during the past few years to get its domestic air services to operate efficiently. Unfortunately, what government deemed as a solution to its domestic air service problems, by adopting the New Zealand Civil Aviation rules in February and grounding the Chinese gifted 56-seater MA60 aircraft, has plunged its sole domestic airline, Real Tonga Airline into a more difficult situation. Tevita Palu, the CEO of the Palu Aviation Services, owner of Real Tonga Airlines, said that the grounding of the MA60 and the sudden termination by government of their lease agreement, has hampered his operation. The grounding of the MA60 and a restriction on the size of aircraft that he could use to not more than 30-seat aifcraft, has left a big gap in his services. The MA60 service used to service only the Tongatapu-Vava’u route, his most lucrative market. This route also helps to support their marginal services to the other islands, Ha’apai, ‘Eua and the Niuas. He stressed the fact that government does not compensate the airline for the unprofitable service that Real Tonga offers for these outer islands. In the off-season the MA60 flies once a day to Vava’u, but during the peak season, from May to December it flies three times a day to Vava’u. He said that apart from not having an appropriate sized aircraft, he had to compensate for passengers who had prebooked on the MA60, and to layoff pilots and staff. The obvious incentive for the government decision to ground the MA60 aircraft was that it would open the way for the New Zealand government to releaseNZ$10.5 million for a tourism development grant that it had withheld since 2013 when the Tongan Aviation Authority certified the MA60 - an aircraft that New Zealand has not certified. But it has thrown Tonga’s domestic air service into an even more difficult situation. The love/hate relationship between the Tonga government and the Real Tonga Airline, surfaced last August when the then Prime Minister Lord Tu’ivakano informed the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) that government would revoke the Air Operator Certificate of Real Tonga and that they had to reapply for an Air Operator Certificate and certification in accordance with the standards of the New Zealand Civil Aviation rules. However, the government did not revoke Real Tonga’s Air Operator Certificate and Tevita said he was well aware of the fact that government was moving to start up another airline.  A new airline the Royal Tongan Airlines has been formed and has leased the grounded MA60 aircraft from government. The MA60 is parked outside the Real Tonga Airline hangar at the airport. Tevita said they keep up the maintenance of the aircraft though they have not been paid for the work.


Meanwhile, Tevita hoped that government would fix the runways and provide the necessary navigation equipment for outer islands’ airports. He said that the runways are so rough, particularly in Vava’u and Ha’apai that they have to replace the tyres of aircrafts frequently. A flying stone from the runway when the aircraft landed has broken the propeller and driven a hole through the fuselage of one of his aircraft. He said that if it rains they can’t land in outer islands’ airports because pilots can’t communicate with the control tower at the airport. He stressed that if Tonga wants to develop its economy, tourism is its only hope, and to develop tourism, “we must have an airline with reliable air services.” Meanwhile, Viliami Ma’ake, the CEO of Tonga Airports Ltd said that a USD$28 million project is currently underway to upgrade the runway at the Fua’amotu Airport, and the Lupepau’u Airport, Vava’u. He said that the work on the Lupepau’u Airport runway has been hampered because is no quarry in operation in Vava’u, but they had made arrangements to ferry gravel from Tongatapu to Vava’u. To avoid any interruption to the air service to Vava’u, Viliami said they were planning to work at night then clear out during the day, to allow aircraft to land. He was expecting the work at the Vava’u airport to be completed by August or September. Real Tonga Airline now operates only two small aircraft, a Jet Stream and Y12. The Y12 was also gifted from the People’s Republic of China to Tonga. Recently, Real Tonga in partnership with the Fiji Airways, has started a service, flying the Fiji Airways’ 68-seater aircraft between Tongatapu and Vava’u.

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