World Bank review will certify Tongan plane
A year-long dispute between New Zealand and Tonga over a plane will be solved with World Bank intervention.
The dispute between Tonga and New Zealand over a controversial plane is set to be solved by a new deal between the countries, but a travel advisory is to remain in place.
Last year, when the MA-60 started flying domestically in Tonga, New Zealand's foreign minister Murray McCully put $8 million NZ dollars of tourism aid on hold and issued a travel warning.
But now the World Bank has asked to review Tonga's entire transport industry, which will include the accreditation of the plane.
Alex Perrottet has more:
Tonga's deputy prime minister, Samiu Vaipulu, last year said he had no issue with New Zealand, just Murray McCully. Mr McCully defended his move, saying New Zealand's Civil Aviation Authority didn't recognise the MA-60, and nor did other international bodies, and he had a duty to warn New Zealand tourists. But now he says the World Bank review will solve it and much more.
MURRAY McCULLY: I think we need to get past any sense of differences over particular items of equipment or transport modes and focus on good processes that are regarded as internationally robust.
But Murray McCully says the travel warning will remain in place until the review team has made its recommendations, and says there's no set time frame as yet. The package was agreed on after talks in Auckland between Mr McCully and the Tongan Prime Minister, Lord Tu'ivakano, and will cover all aviation, road and maritime safety issues. Lord Tu'ivakano says Tonga needs to get up to speed with international standards.
LORD TU'IVAKANO: Since we had that problem in the past with Ashika, I think we have learnt our lessons. And I think there's a continuous... make sure boats are seaworthy. But if the World Bank comes with any additions to what has been done, then we have to go through with what is the recommendation of the World Bank.
The compromise is a solution that avoids getting a New Zealand certifier into the country, something Samiu Vaipulu was adamant wouldn't happen, as it would offend the Chinese donors. Some aviation experts had said the plane was dangerous and pilots had crashed it on landing, several times in Indonesia and Burma. The United States Federal Aviation Administration has refused to certify it. But a Tongan website on the MA-60 claims they were clearly instances of human error, and the plane was accredited by China and flown by experienced pilots. The argument between Mr Vaipulu and Mr McCully was heightened when Mr Vaipulu revealed he had travelled with the New Zealand high commissioner on the plane. But now that the end is in sight, Mr McCully has denied the stand-off was the main motivation of the new project.
MURRAY McCULLY: It wasn't so much a matter of looking to try and find a solution to the differences we have over one small aspect of the transport system in Tonga, it was a matter of saying more, this is a time to focus on a big initiative that is going to make a sustainable difference right across the board rather than argue about one small thing that we've had different views about.
The different views were also about who should be flying in Tonga. When China gifted the plane, the carrier was Chathams Pacific, part of New Zealand company Chathams Air. The CEO, Craig Emeny, said Tonga had decided to give the plane to a new company, Real Tonga, and the domestic market was not big enough for two airlines. But Mr Vaipulu insisted he was wrong - he hadn't made a decision in favour of Real Tonga, and competition would be good. Craig Emeny said he had lost business confidence in Tonga due to the Government's attitude and he pulled out in March 2013, although still leased planes to Real Tonga while they waited for their own to be ready. Mr McCully said at the time it was the cessation of Chathams Pacific, and the safety concerns, that caused him to act. But the CEO of Real Tonga, Tevita Palu, who also has the contract of servicing Air New Zealand planes, says the plane has always been safe, but any further certification helps.
TEVITA PALU: We don't have any objections at all for this certification requirements from any authority so we very much welcome and hope that we can find a way forward with this soon.
A hotelier in Vava'u, where the MA-60 flies, and a board member of the Tonga Tourism Authority, Shane Walker, says Tonga has been hurt by issues such as travel insurance companies refusing to issue insurance for people flying the route and businesses in Vava'u are feeling the pinch. He says what's worse than the withholding of tourism funds is the travel advisory, which deters tourists coming to the country at all, as there are so many other options in the Pacific. Shane Walker says he's researched extensively on the plane and the maker, Xian supplies essential components to major builders such as Boeing. He says what was fought over was simply a piece of paper and there will be no changes to the aircraft once it's cleared by the World Bank.
SHANE WALKER: It's not in anyone's best interests if there's questions over any aircraft's accreditation and certification. People need to feel safe and comfortable and confident. We've got a brand new aircraft up there, a very reliable aircraft and what's missing essentially is the certificate, a piece of paper that says New Zealand is happy with its certification process.
Shane Walker says it's a widely-used commuter aircraft in China and the law of averages suggests that a lot of New Zealanders will have have flown on them there. Last year the CEO of Samoa Air, Chris Langton, was approached to be a test pilot for an independent group starting an internationally-recognised validation process, and said he didn't think there were safety issues. Mr McCully says the tourism funding will be unlocked once the World Bank outlines the main priorities for work in Tonga.
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