Chathams Pacific withdraws, Real Tonga takes off

Tonga’s domestic air travellers have been assured they won’t be affected when the current domestic airline Chathams Pacific pulls out in March. A new locally owned domestic airline would take over servicing Tonga’s domestic routes, Tonga’s Deputy Prime Minister Samiu Vaipulu has confirmed.

Vaipulu who is also the Infrastructure Minister says domestic travellers can expect a 10 percent reduction in airfares once the new airline—Real Tonga—is fully operational.

Real Tonga, owned by Palu Aviation Services, will take over from Chathams Pacific on March 4 after securing the lease of an MA60 (50-seater) aircraft from the Tongan government. This has been gifted by Chinese Government to Tonga.

Tevita Palu, Chief Executive Officer of Real Tonga said he has sufficient aircraft to operate all domestic routes when Chatham pulls out.

Palu is an aircraft engineer with 25 years experience. He formed Palu Aviation Services to provide maintenance services for international airlines using Fua’amotu airport in Tonga as its base.

Minister Vaipulu told ISLANDS BUSINESS from Nuku’alofa that it was unfortunate that Chathams Pacific has decided to withdraw its service.

But Chathams Pacific says it cannot compete with the new airline.

“When Chathams started, it said competition makes a business healthy but now they are saying Tonga would not be able to have two airlines,” he said.

Chathams Pacific’s General Manager Noel Gillespie said they have been kept in the dark as to who will operate the airline and how their service would gain from competing considering the circumstances.

He told ISLANDS BUSINESS he hoped the 54 Tongan employees in his company would find alternative employment in the new airline come March 2, the deadline he had given for the closure of his Tongan operation.

Gillespie said despite various requests, they had not been able to get clear responses from the Tongan Government.

“We asked if we could talk to the new airline to see if we could work together, but we weren’t given that information,” Gillespie said.

In a letter written to the Tongan Government, Chathams Pacific’s chief executive Craig Emeny said the study he had carried out clearly showed that his airline would not be able to maintain financial viability in the Tongan market with the introduction of another airline operating a 50-seat (MA-60) and Harbin Y-12 aircraft in competition to Chathams.

“I have now lost business confidence in Tonga due to the government’s attitude towards my airline and I won’t continue providing the domestic air services.”

Chathams is the 11th domestic airline to service the Kingdom. It started operating in Tonga in 2007. It operates five aircraft on various routes including the hot tourist spot of Vava’u where tourists flock to watch whales. But Tonga has a long history of failed aircraft ventures.

Real Tonga

Palu is a licensed aircraft engineer with a United States Federal Aviation Administration license and a New Zealand license which allows him to work on Boeing 767, 737, A320, ATR, HS748, DHC and SH360 aircraft to name a few.

His company Palu Air Services is also an approved cargo operator and International Air Transport Association approved travel agency.

While it is Tonga based, it also has operations in New Zealand and Samoa.

It has an agreement to service Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia, Air Pacific in Tonga and Samoan aircraft.

“Currently, we have 45 people on our payroll. It has been my dream to operate our own airline for many years now. The decision made by Chathams Pacific to withdraw from Tonga opens up an opportunity for us,” Palu told ISLANDS BUSINESS from Tonga.

In 2005, Palu Aviation had achieved certification by the Ministry of Transport, as an Aircraft Maintenance Organisation (AMO) under Civil Aviation Rule Part 145. From there, it provided maintenance for domestic airlines such as Peau Vava’u and Chathams.

Starting off as an aviation maintenance outlet it has branched out into other areas such as automotive repair works, micro-financing business, and money transfer business which facilitates the company’s international financial transactions.

On the reliability of the MA60, Palu said all aircraft released to service routes are subject to type design acceptance by the responsible regulators before they can operate including MA60.

In addition to its 17-seater Harbin Y-12 aircraft, Real Tonga has available to it a 9-seater BN2 Islander, a 19-seater DHC6 Twin Otter and a 68-seater ATR72-500 aircraft. The MA60 is described as a short take-off-and-landing aircraft designed for rugged conditions.

The United States Federal Aviation Administration has refused to certify it. It mainly operates in Third World countries where they are sold heavily subsidised or given away free.

Real Tonga is committed to ensuring that domestic air transport in the Kingdom is not disrupted and that it has adequate seat capacity to cater for the demand.

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