COMMENTARY: Deputy PM Vaipulu has been deeply involved in domestic airlines’ continuing crises for past decade

COMMENTARY: Deputy Prime Minister Sāmiu Vaipulu could have told Parliament a lot more about how closely he has been involved in the crises surrounding Tonga’s domestic air services for the past 10 years.   

Deputy Prime Minister Samiu Vaipulu

Hon. Vaipulu was speaking recently in the Parliament in response to a motion to stop the Hu’akavameiliku government from buying a new aircraft for its troubled Lulutai airlines. The new aircraft was expected to arrive in Tonga this month.

Hon. Vaipulu said he and other Cabinet Ministers made a proposal while they were ministers in the late Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa government to set up Lulutai airlines as a solution to the domestic airlines problems which ultimately stretched back to the shutting down of Royal Tongan Airlines.

The doomed national airlines’ flight services collapsed in 2004 before the government sided with the then Crown Prince Tupouto’a and created a one airline policy to give his Peau Vava’u airlines the sole right for the domestic air services, forcing the popular Fly Niu airlines from the kingdom.

He said a decision by Parliament at the time to shut down the Royal Tongan Airlines caused a lot of trouble for travellers from outer islands.

What Hon. Vaipulu failed to say was the fact that the domestic airlines crisis after the fall of the Royal Tongan airlines venture and the closure of the airline Peau Vava’u in early 2007,  had already been resolved after the New Zealand’s Pacific Chatham airline began serving Tongan domestic airlines in 2008.

This was four years after the Royal Tongan international flight services closed. The Peau Vava’u operation had caused many complaints and safety concerns about its 60 year old DC-3 aircraft as well as bad customer services and unexpected flight cancellations and schedule changes.

Chatham airlines started operation and servicing the domestic flights in April that year after the controversial Peau Vava’u airlines was shut down in January.

Domestic air services revival

It was Air Chatham which came to the kingdom  at the invitation of the Tongan government and revived the domestic flight services.

It reached a point where the domestic services were described by the owner of Air Chatham Craig Emeny as “reliable and sustainable”.

“This has given the inbound tourist operators confidence to promote Tonga as a destination, and Tongan people have been provided with a safe and affordable airline with the lowest domestic seat cost per kilometre in the region”, Emeny said in a statement republished by Kaniva News on February 2013.

That article came after Emeny expressed his disappointment following an announcement by Hon. Vaipulu, who was then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Civil Aviation, that  a new Chinese MA 60 aircraft would arrive in Tonga shortly as part of the government’s plan to set up a new airline to compete with Air Chatham.

Emeny said at the time he was concerned that “Tonga simply is not large enough to support two airlines”.

He also said Hon, Vaipulu “did not include or consider my airline in anyway”.

“I am not able to maintain financially viability in the Tonga market with the introduction of another airline operating a 50 seat (MA-60) and a 17 seat (Y12) aircraft in competition to me”.

After the arrival of the MA60 aircraft the government set up its new domestic airlines in partnership with Real Tonga in March 2013 and air Chatham withdrew its services from the kingdom. The MA60 proved to be a source of continuing controversy.

At the time Hon. Vaipulu said publicly that Real Tonga would provide cheaper airfares.

MA60 troubles

Controversy surrounded the MA60, after it was revealed that it had a troubling safety record.

The New Zealand government suspended millions of dollars in tourism aid to Tonga over concerns about the safety of its domestic airline service.

The New Zealand government also issued a travel warning to New Zealanders about flying on the aircraft.

Hon. Vaipulu was removed from the Minister of Civil Aviation in 2014 after a report to the International Civil Aviation Organisation was found to have errors. The details of the report were not released to the media.

The government’s initiative with Real Tonga failed in many respects, including failures to fulfil Hon. Vaipulu’s promise of cheaper fares.

There were lots of ongoing complaints about customer service issues, flight schedules unexpected changes and cancellations. Real Tonga finally ceased operation in 2020 after the government took back its aircrafts.

Lulutai airlines

Hon. Vaipulu, who had supported the setting up of Real Tonga, proposed to the Tu’i’onetoa government that it be closed down and Lulutai airlines be established in 2020.

Hon. Vaipulu is now trying to defend the purchase of a new aircraft for the troubled Lulutai airlines, even though many in the House are unconvinced it will improve domestic services.  

Lulutai has caused a lot of trouble to the tourism industry by providing uncertain flight services and reaching the point where it has only been able to survive because  Australia has been paying Fiji airlines to run Tonga’s domestic services.

Vaipulu rejects king’s advice

As Kaniva News reported previously in 2021  the king said the government should not run businesses, a statement opposed at the time by Hon. Vaipulu.

“A question was raised in the Cabinet whether the king’s concerns included the government’s operating the Lulutai Airlines,” Vaipulu said in Tongan.

He also said: “I told the Prime Minister Lulutai Airlines is our means of transportation from Tonga to Vava’u. It is the responsibility of the government to create that route so we can use it. As a result, the aircraft must fly in that route we have prepared. And that’s the answer to His Majesty.”

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