More Woes for Tongan Airlines and Air Travel
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.
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.”
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.”
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
“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.”
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.”
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.”
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.