Fly Niu ‘expression of interest’ in running domestic airlines revealed; Lulutai CEO desperate for planes to meet demand

A letter showing that an airline operator was interested in taking over local flight services, despite the Prime Minister claiming no operator was interested, can now be revealed.  

Fly Niu owner ‘Atu Finau. Photo/Kalino Lātū

The Fly Niu airlines expression of interest letter dated January 18, 2023 was adressed to the Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku. It provided the government with a three-part offer.

The  revelation came after Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku appeared to be responding to the king’s concerns the previous day questioning the Government’s managing the airline in “secrecy” and failing to recruit experts in civil aviation to assist with the controversial national airlines.  

The revelation comes after Lulutai CEO Poasi Tei confirmed to Kaniva News earlier this week he has been in contact with the former domestic airline operator Air Chathams in an attempt to lease an aircraft from its fleet.

We understand Lulutai airlines is in desperate needs of more aeroplanes after its largest aircraft, the Saab 340B, crashed in December. Air Chathams has two of the Swedish-built airliners in its fleet.

Fly Niu CEO ‘Atu Finau told Kaniva News he made contact with Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku after sending him the letter last year and he was still awaiting a response.

The expression of interest said  Fly Niu would firstly provide a six to 12 month Aircraft, Crew, Maintenance, and Insurance (ACMI) back up aircraft lease.

“The minimum utilisation capacity for this lease aircraft [would be] three daily TBU/VAV/TBU (Fua’amotu International airport/Vava’u/Fua’amatu) trips”, the letter said.

It would follow with a 12- month management contract for Fly Niu to restructure and operate the airline to ensure Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) compliance, scheduled aircraft maintennce programme and the airlines long-term vialbility.

The third part of the offer was to have an agreed price to purchase an agreed percentage of the airline’s shares within 12 months from the commencment of the management contract.

The Prime Minister has been contacted for comment.

Fly Niu airline was forced out of Tonga 20 years ago when the government passed a one airline policy that gave the sole right to operate domestic flights to Peau Vava’u, an airline co-owned by the Late King George Tupou V and his business partners, the Ramanlal brothers. It replaced the bankrupt Royal Tongan Airlines.

Peau Vava’u flew from mid-2004 to the end of 2006 when its offices were destroyed in a fire.

Chatham negotiations

The Tongan government’s recent attemtping to restore its bitter relationship with Air Chathams appears to show Lulutai’s desperation for planes to meet its services demands.

Lulutai CEO Poasi Tei told Kaniva News he was trying to get planes leased from Chathams because of the upcoming peak season for the flight services.

We understand Tei has also been in contact with other avaition experts, including Finau, in his attempt to get more planes for Lulutai. The airlines is now operating with two small aircraft, its new 18 seater Twin Otter and the Y12 plane, which, as reported by Kaniva News, has experienced a number of mechanical issues.

Air Chathams operated Tonga’s sole domestic airline under the name Chathams Pacific, but pulled out in 2011 after the Tongan government decided to set up its own airline in partnership with Real Tonga airlines.

Air Chathams was not happy with the decision and announced that it was closing its doors.

Chatham’s owner, Craig Emeny expressed his disappointment following an announcement by Samiu Vaipulu, who was then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Civil Aviation, that  a new Chinese MA 60 aircraft would arrive in Tonga 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, who is now one of the directors of Lulutai airlines, “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,” he said.

Air Vanuatu

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific, another national carrier, Air Vanuatu, has cancelled all its international flights. It is understood the airline has been trying to service all of its international flights with one aircraft – a Boeing 737 – which is reported to have had mechanical problems..

According to RNZ, the Vanuatu government is considering putting the airline into administration. Hundreds of passengers, many from New Zealand and Australia, have been stranded. Earlier reports suggested the airline was facing bankruptcy.

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