Mechanical failure prompted king to travel by vessel – NZ warns air travellers

UPDATED 10:30am, 11/08: A quick change was made on the King of Tonga’s flight schedules for his royal visits to open outer islands Agricultural Show on a Real Tongan Aircraft after the airline revealed the plane had mechanical failure.

King Tupou VI was due to take royal tour around the main outer islands of Tonga by aircraft to open the Royal Agricultural Show 2013 beginning on August 7  but eventually travelled on the MV 'Otuanga'ofa.

Tevita Palu, Real Tonga Chief Executive Officer said the company experienced a number of problems so far.

“‘Uhinga ki he laiseni ‘o e vaka, mo e kau ngaue pea ‘i ai mo e me’akehe ne maumau e vaka ‘e taha ‘o uesia ai e fefolau’aki,” ko ‘ene lau ia ki he pepa Kele’a. Translated as: “I mean there's an issue with the aircraft’s license, and the employees and some other issues, one aircraft had mechanical failure and they affected the flight schedules,” he told the  local Kele'a newspaper.

The Real Tonga leased aircraft from Air Chatham and it was the air plane that serviced the Niuas but the lease ended on August 6.

An anonymous source told the paper there is a substitution aircraft but it could not be able to land on the Niuas. The source said a small aircraft that could land on the Niuas was available but it assumed the king would not like to travel on it.

The MA-60 aircraft gifted from China was apparently not allowed to operate when the king's flights to the two Niuas were scheduled and it could not service the two islands for landing reasons.

The royal trips were arranged to be at Niuatoputapu on August 7,  Niuafo’ou on August 8, Vava’u on August 10, Ha’apai on August 14, and ‘Eua on August 17, before ending up with the  Tongatapu two days event on August 23-24.

Losaline Ma’asi from the Ministry of Agriculture told the paper they made regular checks with the airline office while the king was in the outer islands but confirmed the aircraft still could not be able to operate.

Too early

The problems revived a heated debate emerged when Air Chatham was about to leave Tonga in March this year saying it was not fair for the government to set up and subsidize a local airline, Real Tonga company,  to compete with its airline.

Critics warned at the time that government had pressed the wrong button when it was revealed it re-engaged in airline services considering its long history of failed aircraft ventures, including11 failed and bankrupted airlines in the past.

Deputy Prime Minister Hon Vaipulu, who was instrumental in setting up of the Real Tonga Airline was insistent at the time assuring Tonga’s domestic air travellers “they won’t be affected when the current domestic airline Chathams Pacific pulls out in March.”

The situation escalated into a stage that cost Tonga's millions of grant from New Zealand after PM John Key's government learnt last month the kingdom accepted a controversial aircraft as a gift from China.

Despite New Zealand's attempt to intervene for safety reason by holding its grants for Tonga's Tourism Hon Vaipulu announced the "aircraft is safe" and few things to be completed before it  "start the service to our people."

New Zealand releases warning

New Zealand today Saturday 10 has  warned its citizens after it confirmed Tonga has allowed the MA-60 aircraft to fly its zone.

"The MA-60 has been the subject of serious concerns amongst aviation experts. It is not certified to fly in New Zealand and would not be allowed to do so without a thorough certification process under Civil Aviation rules. The MA-60 is not certified by comparable jurisdictions such as the European Aviation Safety Agency (EU), the Federal Aviation Administration (US) and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (AUS),” Mr McCully says.

“In the absence of an internationally respected certification process for Tongan conditions, it is the government’s obligation to draw the attention of the travelling public to these issues and our Tongan travel advisory has been updated accordingly.

“The New Zealand Government has put support for the Tongan tourism industry on hold, and we will not be spending taxpayer money promoting tourism in Tonga until we are satisfied with the safety and reliability of this new air service.

“We are in discussions with the Tongan Government on this issue. I reiterate my offer of support to Tonga to assist them in ensuring aviation safety, a critical component of tourism in the Pacific islands,” Mr McCully says.

MFAT’s updated travel advice on the MA-60:

Tonga’s domestic airline fleet currently includes an MA-60 aircraft. This aircraft has been involved in a significant number of accidents in the last few years. The MA-60 is not certified to fly in New Zealand or other comparable jurisdictions and would not be allowed to do so without a thorough certification process under Civil Aviation rules. Travellers utilising the MA-60 do so at their own risk.

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