Tonga's aviation sector changing approach
Tongan aviation sector 'improving' but MA-60 still flying
Tonga's airline industry is updating itself in line with international standards, but is still flying a controversial plane that sparked a dispute with New Zealand.
The New Zealand foreign ministry recently changed its travel advisory after it said Tonga had made progess, but the Chinese-made MA-60 plane is still in the air.
The domestic carrier now says it's relieved, after reports were quashed that its licence would be revoked.
Alex Perrottet has more.
Earlier this month, the Tongan government announced it would not revoke Real Tonga's licence but to ensure safety, the country's regulatory framework will be developed in line with the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO.
The move was prompted by ICAO's concerns over two new planes gifted by China this year. The New Zealand aviation commentator who originally warned authorities with his concerns about the plane, Peter Clark, says he is sure that if Tonga brings itself in line with New Zealand, the MA-60 would not be certified.
PETER CLARK: I am not very happy still because this plane is still not certified so what insurance do people still get flying on it? I constantly, when I see John Key, I mention it, and he told me, to my face, that they would not give in on this.
Peter Clark says he thinks the MA-60 has been sidelined in favour of the new planes, but the CEO of Read Tonga, Tevita Palu, says the plane is in service and busy.
TEVITA PALU: The aircraft is operating every day, normally. There is no disruption for the MA-60 operation. I am told the MA-60 will continue to operate, this is from the government.
The owner of Tonga Beach Resort and board member of the Tonga Tourism Authority, Shane Walker, says he too is mystified by the New Zealand government's altered travel advisory.
SHANE WALKER: Last year this plane was deemed unsafe by the New Zealand travel advisory and miraculously all of a sudden that claim has now disappeared, suggesting that New Zealand is now happy with Tonga's certification processes and miraculously the plane is as safe as any other aircraft.
In March, the World Bank was called in to review the whole transport sector. First drafts said the plane was not certified properly, but after the Tongan authorities complained, all reference to the plane was removed from the report. The recommendations to improve operations were kept. Since then the World Bank says it no longer plans to publish the report, and hinted it was happy for Tonga to take up its issues with ICAO.
In the last two months, Samiu Vaipulu, has been moved from the Ministry of Infrastructure, and Vili Cocker has been replaced as the CEO of the Civil Aviation Department, with the Ministry's CEO, Ringo Faoliu, taking over the issue. Mr Faoliu could not be reached, but he has told Tongan media that ICAO is concerned about Tonga's aviation safety framework, and its engineering competency.
Tevita Palu says currently there is a standard audit of the Real Tonga fleet by the Pacific Aviation Safety Office, which is outsourcing the job to the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority, but he says the MA-60 is strangely not included in the audit.
TEVITA PALU: That doesn't include the MA-60 operation. I've asked the questions but that's the scope of work at the moment, just look at the airline operation except the MA-60 operation.
Both the New Zealand Foreign Ministry and the Tongan government were approached for comment.
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