Tongan government goes back on decision to ground controversial passenger aircraft

In a major policy turnaround, Tonga has reversed its decision to keep the controversial MA60 aircraft grounded.

This is despite an announcement made in February 2015 that the aircraft would not be operated until it complied with the requirements of the kingdom’s new Civil Aviation Act.

As Kaniva News reported at the time, the Pacific Aviation Safety Office recommended that the aircraft not be operated until it had been properly certified and complied with New Zealand civil aviation rules.

TVNZ’s One News has quoted New Zealand’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Murray McCully, as saying that Tonga’s Civil Aviation Division had issued an Air Operator Certificate for the MA60 without reference to the Pacific Aviation Safety Office or the New Zealand government.

McCully said the New Zealand government accepted that Tonga was “a sovereign nation and entitled to make its own decisions in such matters.”

He said he had offered to help Tonga with the MA60 and to underline New Zealand’s aviation safety standards.

As we reported in 2013, China gave Tonga the 60-seat Xian MA60 turbo-prop to Tonga, forcing the New Zealand-owned Chatham Pacific Airlines to withdraw its five aircraft from the Friendly Islands.

The MA60 was operated by Real Tonga airlines.

Pressure from New Zealand effectively grounded the MA60 for several years when it withdrew tourism funding after concerns about the aircraft’s safety record.

The aircraft is a Chinese version of an old Soviet-era Russian design, the Antonov 26. It has been involved in several incidents, mostly in developing countries.

It is not certified by the European Safety agency, the US Federal Aviation Administration or the Civil Aviation Safety Authority in Australia.

It is unclear whether the Chinese government, to which Tonga owes $114 million it cannot repay, had anything to do with the decision to put the MA60 back in the air.

For more information

Tonga set to resume flying Chinese aircraft grounded over safety concerns (TVNZ)

CNN covers Chinese-Tonga Unsafe MA-60 aircraft (Kaniva News)

Government terminates Real Tonga MA60 operation (Kaniva News)

Reports China won’t forgive huge Tongan debt (Radio New Zealand)

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