UPDATED: CNN news website, one of the world’s top online newspapers and satellite television channels has a question against the Kingdom of Tonga: “Would you feel comfortable flying in a plane with the exit sign missing from above its door?”
The question was the first line in an article written this week by the CNNG0.com editorial director Chuck Thompson titled : “’Unsafe’ Chinese airplane hurting Tonga tourism.”
China gave Tonga the controversial new 60-seat Xian MA60 turbo-prop aircraft early this year as a gift forcing the New Zealand-owned Chatham Pacific Airline with its five aircrafts that serviced the kingdom’s domestic flight, out of the Friendly Islands.
The aircraft experiencing a significant number of accidents in the past drew huge criticisms from the wider Pacific communities when it was announced Tonga allowed it to fly without safety certifications from US, European Unions, Australia and New Zealand.
Tongan authorities insisted the plane is safe and it has passed through its own safety validation process.
This week Thompson relayed to his worldwide audience how an MA-60 aircraft’s flight from Fiji to Tonga last week had passengers “anxious” and experienced an “incredibly tense flight” Australian passenger Lisa Kingsberry told Radio Australia.
“Kingsberry was travelling from Fiji to Vava’u in Tonga and has told Pacific Beat airline troubles delayed her in the capital, Nuku’alofa, for two days.
“They informed us that the pilot had been rushed to hospital and they were trying to replace the captain,” she said.
“The weather was perfect…and throughout the day this is the story that they kept telling us.
“Then we were told they were grounded for another day…told that the captain was still sick…and then weather had caused the flights to be grounded.”
She says when the plane did depart, she’d never been on such an anxious flight.
“As we got on, the exit sign on the plane fell off, and they couldn’t put it back on so they just took the exit sign off from the plane,” she said.
“As we ascended off the runway, water started running from the cabin…we were sitting in the emergency aisle and it landed straight on top of me unfortunately.
“I’ve never been on such an anxious flight…everyone was talking about the safety issues.
“I’ve never seen so many people pay attention to the safety demonstration – it was like meerkats popping up – no one missed the safety demonstration. So it was an incredibly tense flight.”
Real Tonga’s commercial manager, Tele Faletau, says it wasn’t aware of the problems on that flight
“The water leaking I know it’s not so much a leak in the aircraft because of the weather here in Tonga at the moment it’s quite humid, and we have on-board air conditioning on the aircraft,” he said.
“And so whilst the aircraft is sitting on the ground running air conditioning, a little bit of condensation builds up, and as the aircraft takes off that might cool and start dripping a little.”
Despite condemnation and harsh criticisms from the Pacific communities Faletau told CNN, “There are no plans to ground it.” “We have no grounds on which we need to ground it.”
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 church said it was for safety reasons.
The Mormon Church is one of the largest users of inter-islands air travel.
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 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.