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When Air Chathams owner Craig Emery announced that his airline’s Pacific subsidiary was to cease flying in Tonga in 2013, he said his company was the 11th operator to service the kingdom.
Chathams Pacific started flying in Tonga in 2008 to replace a gaggle of tiny operators which had filled the gap since the collapse of Royal Tonga airlines.
The question is whether Real Tonga will be the 12th and whether there will be a 13th.
Like all previous operators Real Tonga is operating in a small market with high costs and an often ambivalent government attitude.
As we reported in 2017, the government of the late ‘Akilisi Pohiva government refused to grant a license to Tonga Airlines, saying there was no room in the kingdom for a second airline.
Emery made the same point when he announced his airline’s withdrawal, saying the market was too small for two operators.
At the time critics said the loss of Chatham Pacific was a major step backwards for tourism and the people of Tonga.
Businesman Peter White, a regular traveller, told Matangi Tonga Online: “I have travelled from Auckland to Vava’u seven times in the last six years and can say that all the other airlines in Tonga before Chathams Pacific were all mediocre at best.
“All my previous flights on Airlines Tonga and Peau Vava’u for example were all excessively delayed, cancelled, over-sold or over-weight. Communication was non-existent and the staff did not seem to really care.”
Emery was forced out of the kingdom after the government announced it had been given an MA60 airliner – a copy of a 1960s Russian design and a Harbin Y12 – a copy of the Australian Nomad – and would operate its own service.
That service became Real Tonga, which faced fierce opposition to the MA60, by the New Zealand government, which withdrew aid money and refused to certify the aircraft because of its poor safety record.
Real Tonga is now facing the same financial crisis affecting airlines all over the world because of the Covid-19 pandemic and has appealed to the government for help.
However, it is understood there have been problems with the lease on the Chinese aircraft from the government.
The government is now considering the future of flying in the kingdom and whether direct government management would be cheaper than contracting an outside company.
In the past the royal family has had a direct involvement in the airline industry. King George Tupou V and Indian businessman Joseph Ramanlal owned Peau Vava’u, which lasted from May 2004 to November 2006 operating leased DC3s.
Peau Vava’u was issued with the only domestic operating license after the bankruptcy of the former carrier Royal Tongan Airlines. The monopoly also meant it got rid of its only competitor, Fly Niu.
Both of these airline rose out of the collapse of Royal Tongan airlines, which closed down owing US$8.5 million. The Tongan government pumped TP$20 million into the airline during its 19 year existence. Late ‘Akilisi Pohiva blamed King Taufa’ahau Tupou IV for the financial crisis and called on him to use his own funds to bail Royal Tongan out of its financial woes. The king had overruled opposition from the Cabinet and Parliament to enter into a disastrous lease of a 757 from Royal Brunei Airlines which was eventually repossessed.
An audit by KPMG in 2003 showed the airline was almost insolvent and that it had lost more than US$5 million after a wildly ambitious international expansion.
Royal Tonga had its origins in a 1983 proposal for what was to be called Friendly Island Airways by Japanese operator All Nippon Airways. The plan was for ANA to use one of its surplus 737s and to provide technical and managerial assistance.
The main points
- When Air Chathams owner Craig Emery announced that his airline’s Pacific subsidiary was to cease flying in Tonga in 2013, he said his company was the 11th operator to service the kingdom.
- Chathams Pacific started flying in Tonga in 2008 to replace a gaggle of tiny operators which had filled the gap since the collapse of Royal Tonga airlines.
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