More Woes for Ton­gan Air­lines and Air Travel

Fiji Sun - - BUSINESS INTERNATIO­NAL - MATANGI TONGA, MARAIA VULA

While Tonga’s only air­line, Real Tonga, strug­gles with the im­pact of on­go­ing COVID-19 re­stric­tions, the pri­vate sec­tor com­pany faces an­other tough chal­lenge, a lack of govern­ment sup­port and govern­ment’s at­tempts to set up a new air­line.

The Ton­gan Govern­ment’s air­line record is not par­tic­u­larly good. A pre­vi­ous Ton­gan Govern­ment air­line, Royal Ton­gan, col­lapsed amidst crip­pling losses.

New Zealand com­pany Chathams Pa­cific then pulled out of Ton­gan do­mes­tic routes when Chi­nese planes were pro­vided by the Ton­gan govern­ment to com­pete with it.

Mean­while, Real Tonga is not fly­ing af­ter the SAAB 340, a 33 seater aircraft serv­ing the do­mes­tic route, suf­fered en­gine prob­lems when a bird flew into it, af­ter it had taken off in Vava’u last week.

Real Tonga owner and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, Te­vita Palu, spoke to Matangi Tonga, about the se­ri­ous dif­fi­cul­ties he is fac­ing to keep the do­mes­tic air­line op­er­at­ing, while re­ports are cir­cu­lat­ing that he owes govern­ment mil­lions of dol­lars.

The debt is said to be for the leases of two planes, Y-12 and MA60, that were gifted to Tonga from the Chi­nese Govern­ment. How­ever, Te­vita con­firmed the MA60 lease was ter­mi­nated and the Y-12 lease ex­pired and had not been re­newed. The govern­ment owned planes were grounded with parts is­sues.

Along­side its do­mes­tic ser­vice, Real Tonga started op­er­at­ing in­ter­na­tional flights to Suva, Fiji, last year and to Samoa in 2018 as well as se­cur­ing an agree­ment with Nauru Air­lines to start op­er­at­ing from Tonga to Fiji and New Zealand - but the spread of COVID-19 halted all those ser­vices.

Is­sues

Te­vita said that af­ter he had writ­ten to govern­ment ask­ing for sup­port for Real Tonga due to the im­pact of COVID-19, he did not ex­pect the re­sponse he re­ceived.

“Their re­sponse was ‘we will set up an air­line’. That’s ridicu­lous!” he said. He ex­plained the govern­ment also asked if he could help them to set up their new air­line.

They called for a meet­ing yes­ter­day and in­stead of of­fer­ing their sup­port, they asked if they could “set up our of­fice in your han­gar to main­tain our aircraft,” said Te­vita. “There is some­thing wrong with them. I don’t know what to say.”

Staff

On top of that, Te­vita lost his se­nior staff to govern­ment, al­though he un­der­stood they went across be­cause the pay was bet­ter, es­pe­cially as Real Tonga staff had re­ceived pay cuts through the COVID cri­sis.

Te­vita claimed that the Min­istry of Fi­nance had also with­held money owed to Real Tonga for govern­ment travel.

“The way they do things now, is like they are forc­ing us to do things. They are us­ing COVID be­cause they know we’re strug­gling.”

Govern­ment air­line

But this is not the first time govern­ment has tried to set up an air­line while Real Tonga was in op­er­a­tion. He said since Real Tonga started, pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ments had tried to take over and run the air­line but even­tu­ally gave up and let Real Tonga

op­er­ate.

“The same peo­ple who tried be­fore are be­hind this process. This is a po­lit­i­cal is­sue.”How­ever, Te­vita pointed out the re­al­ity, that there is not enough work in Tonga to sus­tain an air­line that is pri­vately op­er­ated.

“The en­vi­ron­ment here is, the air­ports are ter­ri­ble and it costs us a lot of money be­cause we can’t op­er­ate at most air­ports prop­erly. We are re­stricted. The aircraft sup­posed to carry full loads of pas­sen­gers but some days we can only carry half be­cause of the run­way de­sign. The weather also makes an im­pact. So, it’s a com­bi­na­tion of a lot of things.”

Te­vita said while other gov­ern­ments like Fiji, New Zealand and Samoa sup­ported their air­line in­dus­try, Tonga does not.

“Only Tonga, Real Tonga is be­ing liq­ui­dated by its own govern­ment.

“So, their in­ten­tion is to de­stroy Real Tonga and set up a govern­ment air­line. And that’s what they are do­ing. It’s re­ally ridicu­lous.”

Aircraft

While Real Tonga owes on the aircraft lease, Te­vita said agree­ments were in place with govern­ment on a way for­ward, in­cluded in the waiver [clause] of lease.

Te­vita con­firmed the MA60 lease was ter­mi­nated and the Y-12 lease ex­pired and had not been re­newed. Both air­crafts are be­ing re­turned to the govern­ment.

The is­sues with the planes in­clude the MA60 be­ing only Chi­nese cer­ti­fied and the avail­abil­ity of spare parts for both aircraft. The MA60 had been grounded for more than three years due no parts but the govern­ment still is­sued in­voices for the lease.

“Lead time for some parts is month to 24 months,” said Te­vita.

“And train­ing costs for pilots [are] very ex­pen­sive, US$88K per pi­lot.”

In ad­di­tion, weather con­di­tions and the length of the run­ways in Tonga have an im­pact on the num­ber of pas­sen­gers these air­crafts can carry.

He said both aircraft per­for­mances were re­stricted on Ton­gan routes. While the MA60 has 60 seats only 43 seats were used and at times re­stricted to 25 seats.

“The Y-12 has 18 seats but can only use 11 seats on most sec­tors.”

The Y-12 aircraft also has a high op­er­at­ing cost of $7,000 for one hour.

“The flight from here to Ha’apai is about 50 min­utes, and it costs about $6,000 for us to op­er­ate. So, we split that [cost] to 11 pas­sen­gers. We sell the fares for only $250 per per­son so that’s not even half. So, there’s no way we can keep the fare down with that aircraft.”

Grounded

He added that govern­ment keeps send­ing them in­voices ev­ery month for the aircraft that’s grounded. While the planes were grounded, Real Tonga was us­ing an­other aircraft which Te­vita says per­formed bet­ter.

No air­line ser­vice

Right now, there is no air­line op­er­at­ing to any of the is­lands within Tonga. The Real Tonga aircraft that was in op­er­a­tion suf­fered en­gine prob­lems when a bird flew into the wing af­ter it had taken off in Vava’u last week.

“So, we need to change the en­gine, and we need parts. But it will take a while, maybe a month. And I told the govern­ment this is what is go­ing to hap­pen.

“And I gave them a pro­posal and said if worst comes to worst there will be no ser­vice for Tonga.”

Fu­ture

Te­vita said the govern­ment had called him to op­er­ate the Y-12 aircraft in the mean­time be­cause there are no ser­vices in Tonga.

How­ever, Te­vita de­clined “be­cause it’ll cost us a lot of money no mat­ter what they say”.

“I am get­ting an aircraft from Fiji,” he said. “I had an aircraft from Fiji lined up to come but the COVID re­stric­tions held it back.”

Real Tonga started op­er­at­ing in­ter­na­tional flights to Suva, last year and to Samoa in 2018 as well as an agree­ment with Nauru Air­lines to start op­er­at­ing from Tonga to Fiji and New Zealand but the spread of COVID-19 halted all ser­vices.

In the mean­time, Real Tonga will wait for Tonga to re-open its bor­ders.

RealTonga SAAB 340 aircraft at Nausori In­ter­na­tional Air­port last year.

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