Meeting in Wellington a showdown on controversial Tonga plane
A crucial meeting in Wellington may decide the fate of a controversial plane gifted from China to Tonga.
A crucial meeting in Wellington today may decide the fate of the controversial plane gifted to Tonga from China.
After an almost two-year dispute between Tonga's deputy prime minister and New Zealand's foreign minister, the World Bank was brought in review Tonga's transport industry.
But it seems the review has not satisfied Tonga, and others in New Zealand are putting pressure on the government to lift a damaging travel advisory.
Alex Perrottet reports.
An MA-60 plane crash in China in February led China to ground all its MA60s for days, and Samiu Vaipulu said Tonga did the same and carried out checks, according to its agreement with China on air safety. China in turn, have an agreement with the Federal Aviation Administration, one of the bodies that countries take their guidelines from when certifying planes. Like the China planes, the MA60 is back in the air, and Mr Vaipulu says if you look at all plane crashes, there are plenty of others with worse records, and most crashes come down to pilot error.
But Murray McCully has never been happy about Tonga's MA60. He says the process of certification was not in accordance with international standards. He also didn't like the fact that the New Zealand company Chathams Pacific, was edged out of the Tongan domestic market by Real Tonga.
In March, the World Bank review was announced, as a way to solve the standoff. Mr McCully says he hasn't seen the report, ahead of today's meeting, but Mr Vaipulu has, and says it recommends grounding the plane. He says the draft report is unfair, as he was never consulted or even approached by anyone at the World Bank before they compiled their report.
SAMIU VAIPULU: It is very very unfair on us. To me as minister of transport they have not contacted me and they have not met me to give them the true picture of what we did and how we did it.
Samiu Vaipulu says there was nothing underhand in the way the plane was certified and he will prove to Mr McCully it was done according to the regulations of the International Civil Aviation Organisation, or ICAO.
SAMIU VAIPULU: They're saying it's not according to ICAO but I've got all what we did and done, according to ICAO. I will print it out and present it in New Zealand to Mr McCully.
Mr Vaipulu's documentation includes correspondence from ICAO regarding the type certification of the MA60 in the Philippines. In 2010, ICAO acknowledged that the Philippines have an agreement with China, which in turn said it certified the plane in accordance with the FAA.
ICAO said there was no reason why the Philippines could not use the MA60, although it did say there were some question marks over the ongoing product support from the manufacturer.
Mr Vaipulu says he doesn't know why the World Bank didn't approach him - after all, he oversaw the certification of the plane and is the minister responsible. But the World Bank says draft reports were sent to Tonga on the 13th and 18th of April and it looks forward to receiving feedback from Tonga.It hopes to publish the report by June the 3rd.
Mr McCully hasn't said anything for months, keeping up his end of a pact with Mr Vaipulu not to talk to the media about the issue. But if the two men remain locked in a stalemate, there could be another way forward. An experienced New Zealand rescue pilot, recognised by the FAA, says New Zealand pilots can test fly the plane. He says he has come up with is a solid process with the assistance and approval of the Chinese Government.
RODGER MCCUTCHEON: New Zealand pilots have an excellent worldwide reputation for their skill and integrity, and can also work through the recertification process.
Like Mr Vaipulu, Rodger McCutcheon says if Mr McCully was genuinely concerned about the safety risks to New Zealanders, he would issue a travel warning to every country that uses the MA60.
RODGER MCCUTCHEON: This Travel Advisory Warning should have been applied to all countries flying the MA60, including China, as Air New Zealand fly Kiwi's to China who then fly on the MA60 domestically in China, so singling Tonga out for the travel warning is terribly unfair.
But Tongans in New Zealand are genuinely concerned, and tired of the ongoing saga. The Chair of the Tonga New Zealand Advisory Council, Melino Maka, says something has to give.
MELINO MAKA: It's actually beyond a joke now that both parties are in the trash talk and holding out, but at the same time Tonga's economy is actually in a terrible state at the moment because the tourists are not going into Vava'u.
Melino Maka says he supports Mr McCully's safety stance, and that Mr Vaipulu's comments against the World Bank aren't helpful. But either way, a solution must be found, with Tonga's peak tourism approaching, and business owners in Vava'u desperately needing a boost.
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