Prime Minister Pōhiva Tu’i’onetoa said asking whether the government was going to start its own airline was the wrong question.
“It should be asked whether a domestic aircraft will fly again in the kingdom or not,” Hon. Tu’i’onetoa said.
“And if it flies how long before it is bankrupt just like the airlines in the past?”
The Prime Minister’s statement came after Real Tonga CEO Tevita Palu told Kaniva News the government had confirmed it would operate its own domestic airline.
During his interview with Kaniva News, the Prime Minister did not explicitly deny Palu’s statement.
Hon. Tu’i’onetoa said Real Tonga’s 33-seat Saab 340 had been damaged in a bird strike. He said Palu had told him replacing the damaged engine would cost US$3 million. It would take three months for it to reach Tonga. Palu had asked for the government to guarantee a US$3 million loan from Tonga Development Bank.
The Y12 and MA60, which were given to Tonga by China in 2013, will be returned to the government. Lord Tu’ivakano’s government leased them to Real Tonga which caused Chatham Pacific to withdrew from Tonga.
“At the time it was preached that domestic airfares would be cheaper because of the free aircraft from China,” the Prime Minister said.
“After seven years more problems emerged, worse than before Chatham Pacific left.
“There were no cheap seats and Real Tonga still owes huge debts to government. “
He said there was one aircraft that could fly to ‘Eua, but not Ha’apai and Vava’u.
“The MA60 cannot be operated because it has been stationary for a long time and Real Tonga cannot afford to pay for its Certificate of Airworthiness to allow it to fly,” the Prime Minister said.
It was estimated it would cost millions before it could fly again. It could not fly in the next 12 months. The Y12 had 18 or 19 seats, but only 11 seats could be used. It needed some parts from Australia before it can fly. It needed two to three weeks for parts to arrive.
“You asked me what is the government’s plan for its airline?” the Prime Minister said.
“After you look at the conditions I have stated above, do you think someone would be willing to be involved in operating an airline if he had a sensible mind?
“There have been a lot of accusations on the internet, but the fact is this is not a simple issue.
“No one wanted to invest in this operation.
“The government does not want to take away an opportunity that should have been given to someone else. The government has heaps of duties to do.
“From the government’s point of view the domestic service is required for the people, but it has still drowned in troubles since the beginning and it was not just Tevita Palu.
“The government did it before with its Royal Tongan Airline. I was the Auditor General at the time. The first time I saw its balance sheet it was really, really, bad.”
As Kaniva News reported last week, Real Tonga has asked the Tongan government for financial support after being crippled by the Covid-19 lockdown.
The Prime Minister said a Cabinet committee had been set up to look at the best option for the future.
The committee had offered two options; one for the government to keep operating Real Tonga either on its own or in partnership with the existing management; or to hand over air operations to somebody else.
Real Tonga is the last in a long line of airlines in Tonga to face financial difficulties.
People are now using ferries to travel between the islands.