A proposal has been submitted to the Tongan government to bring back an airline that was forced out of Tonga more than 10 years ago.
Fly Niu airlines, which was owned by a Tongan-New Zealand couple, Amber and ‘Atu Finau, came to Tonga in 2004 after the collapse of the national Royal Tongan airline left the Friendly Islands without a domestic air service.
The airline left Tonga after 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 the Ramanlal brothers.
In a meeting in Auckland between Tonga’s Minister of Infrastructure, Hon. ‘Etuate Lavulavu and Fly Niu’s CEO ‘Atu Finau last night (February 13), it was apparent the new democratic Tongan government is prepared to ease the one airline policy and invite airlines to compete for its internal flight services.
Tonga’s current sole domestic airline, Real Tonga, has suffered from bad publicity and inconsistent performance since it began operation in 2012. The company leased an MA60 transport which had been given to the Tongan administration by the Chinese government.
The airline’s other aircraft, including its Beechcraft Queen Air (A3-CIA) and British built Jetstream 32 have also each involved in recent incidents.
Hon. Lavulavu said the decision to approve Fly Niu’s proposal lies within the power of the cabinet, but said he became interested in the company’s submission after he was briefed by Finau. The minister said the proposal sounded reasonable and convincing.
A couple of airlines had already indicated their interest in operating Tonga’s domestic services, Fiji Airways and a new airline company owned by the Former Deputy Prime Minister of Tonga, Samiu Vaipulu.
In a letter to Hon. Lavulavu, Finau, who describes himself as an aviation consultant and has worked for Hawker Pacific Asia said: “Firstly, we would address the domestic operation and then, once established, regional and international operation focusing on the Fiji, Samoa and New Zealand markets.”
“We have access to aircraft that would be ideal to operate in Tonga – they are safe and reputable with a positive proven performance record in the Pacific; specifically, the ATR 72-500 and the Twin Otter.”
Finau told Kaniva News if the government approved his proposal it would take less than three months before its airline could start operating.
Finau, the former General Manager of Engineering (Operations) for Air Vanuatu, said Fly Niu’s international operations concentrated only on flights from Auckland to Tonga.
He said Fly Niu would operate under Air Vanuatu’s Foreign Air Operator Certificate, a certificate that it could take a newly established airline up to a year to obtain.
Hon. Lavulavu said he was happy that Finau had an interest in the flights between Nadi and Vava’u and also for an aircraft to service Niua, the northernmost group of the kingdom’s islands.
Finau said his company had found that about 80 percent of tourists travelling from Fiji to Tonga were travellers to Vava’u. Most travellers from Auckland to Tonga were Tongans and not foreign tourists.
He said at the moment travellers from Fiji to Vava’u have to transit through Tongatapu before taking an onward flight.
Finau said Fly Niu planned to offer a direct Nadi-Vava’u service.
“If the government can revive my airline we can give Tonga the best service ever in its history of airline services just as we began doing in 2004,” Finau said.
He said the Air New Zealand and Pacific Blue flights left either New Zealand or Tonga at night and the amount of cargo they allowed did not meet Tongan traveller’s needs.
“Our Tongan people cannot travel to Tonga without taking as much luggage and as many parcels as they can take for their families and relatives, so we have to provide reasonable heavier weights and space in the aircraft for them,” Finau said.
He said Fly Niu’s international flight would fly during the day, allowing arriving travellers time for shopping and sightseeing.
Finau expected the current government would guarantee future governments would not interfere with Fly Niu’s operation unless it was for safety reasons.
Finau said he trusted the government of Prime Minister Pohiva to promote fair competition and the best services for the people. However, after four years in office there was no guarantee those policies would stand if another government took over.
He asked Hon. Lavulavu whether the government could provide such a guarantee, but the minister told him to put it in his proposal for the cabinet to look at it.
Finau said airlines were a multi-million business and his investors did not want to spend millions on the first three years setting up the business and then find in the fourth year that they were kicked out by the next government, as happened to the Fly Niu in 2004.
Finau, the former General Manager of Fiji Airways, said he would use a nine seater Britten Norman Islander to serve the Niuas from their nearby islands of Vava’u.
Finau said the British made aircraft fitted the conditions of the Niuas because it could land on short, rough airfields.
He said he understood the demand from the domestic market was high. Apart from tourists, Tongans travelled for funerals, weddings, birthdays and businesses.
Finau would not talk about how much he would charge for airfares, but said he would guarantee Fly Niu would always keep its airfares as the best rates for the people.
“I am not doing this to get rich,” he said.
“Yes, we need money but as long as our costs are covered and we have enough profit and that’s all.”
He said if the airfares were affordable and people were satisfied with the service the company could guarantee a service that may last for many more years.
Fly Niu was forced out of Tonga after the government introduced a one airline policy and awarded the sole domestic operating license to Peau Vava’u, an airline co-owned by the Late King George V and the Ramanlal brothers.
Fly Niu admitted later it had not actually applied for the new license.
The Tongan government seized Fly Niu’s Dash 8-series 200 aircraft for a time because of unpaid fees.
At the time Finau said his company expected to operate in Tonga for up to 15 to 20 years, but was surprised at the treatment he received because he had put a lot of effort and money into setting up the business.
Peau Vava’u’s licence was revoked after two years of services and after it received a number of complaints and criticisms from the public for its bad services. It ceased operating soon after one of its offices burned down.
The main points
- A proposal has been submitted to the Tongan government to bring back an airline that was forced out of Tonga more than 10 years ago.
- Fly Niu airlines, which was owned by a Tongan-New Zealand couple, Amber and ‘Atu Finau, came to Tonga in 2004 after the collapse of the national Royal Tongan airline left the Friendly Islands without a domestic air service.
- The airline left Tonga the same year after 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 the Ramanlal brothers.
- Tonga’s current sole surviving domestic airline, Real Tonga, has suffered from bad publicity and inconsistent performance since it began operation in 2012.
For more information