The Mormon Church in Tonga has told its employees and officials the church would no longer pay air fares for them to travel on Real Tonga’s controversial MA-60 aircraft.
The Mormon Church is one of the largest users of inter-islands air travel.
The MA-60 aircraft was given to Tonga as a gift from China. The aircraft has been involved in a significant number of accidents in the past few years.
It is not certified to fly in New Zealand, Australia, Europe and the United States.
A person who talked to Kaniva News from Mormon Church head office in Nukuʻalofa on condition of anonymity, said the decision was taken for safety reasons.
“ We have to make sure that any such equipment used by our employees, leaders and all those at elder level are safe and licensed according to international standard,” the person said.
“The church is liable for the safety of its employees.
“We are still using Real Tonga Airline services, but only its Queen and Islander aircraft.”
She said about 50 church officials and leaders flew to and from the outer islands each week.
Kaniva made several attempts to obtain comment from Real Tonga, but the airline did not respond to our emails.
In the Tongan Parliament this week Opposition Leader, ‘Akilisi Pohiva asked why the government kept silent while the government-subsidised Real Tonga started to bear the consequences of allowing the MA-60 to fly without New Zealand’s civil aviation’s approval.
It has been revealed the airline has refunded thousands of pa’anga as a result of travellers withdrawal from using the MA-60 aircraft.
The Opposition Leader’s statements were quickly attacked by the Prime Minister and his ministers, who told the House to move on and discuss something more important and said the government is working on it.
Real Tonga chief executive officer Tevita Palu told the local media he was not involved in the MA-60 deal and that he only knew about it after it was about to be brought to Tonga.
New Zealand has withheld $10 million of aid for Tonga’s tourism industry since the Tongan Government rejected its offer to help with aviation.
New Zealand’s Foreign Minister, Murray McCully, offered to fund aviation safety experts to go to Tonga to help deal with the issue.
New Zealand has warned its citizens not to fly in the MA60 while they were in Tonga.
The aircraft, which is based on the Soviet-era Antonov 26, is not certified to fly in New Zealand. It is not certified by the European Safety agency, the US Federal Aviation Administration or the Civil Aviation Safety Authority in Australia.
In June the government of Myanmar (Burma) grounded its MA60s after two accidents involving the aircraft. The aircraft has been involved in 11 serious incidents since 2009.