Concern over incident at Kaufana airport grows as  government guarantees $13 million maintenance loan   

The Pacific Aviation Safety Office is concerned about yesterday’s incident at Kaufana airport on ‘Eua in which a Lulutai airlines Harbin Y12 veered off the runway during an attempted take-off, Kaniva News understands.

Prime Minister Huakavameiliku (L), Lulutai Chief Executive Poasi Tei

PASO is an international organisation providing aviation safety and security service for Pacific nations.

After the event, which is technically known as a runway excursion, the aircraft returned to the terminal. Eyewitnesses reported that passengers refused to re-board the aircraft.

The flight was then cancelled.

Our source said the Pacific Aviation Safety Office (PASO) had not been involved in auditing Lulutai airlines.

Lulutai’s main aircraft, a Saab 340, was taken out of service at the beginning of the year for an engine overhaul. Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku Siaosi Sovaleni said the government had been told to ground the aircraft.

At the time it was estimated repairs would take three to four months.

Australia has been providing financial assistance and Fiji airlines provided an aircraft until June.

The Saab 340 is derived from a Swedish design which first flew in 1983. Several hundred of the aircraft are still flying. The Chinese-built Harbin Y12 first flew in 1982 and is still in production.

Our source claimed the cost of overhauling an engine for Saab was between US$780,000 and $820,000.

Our source also told Kaniva News that Lulutai’s  record may work against its ability to lease other aircraft.

Financial costs

The concerns about Lulutai come after it was revealed the government had spent about TP$18 million so far on the airlines after it replaced the Real Tonga Airlines in 2020, Kaniva News has learned.

The Tongan government had put TP$10.1 million in its budget 2022/2023  and $3.3 million on its 2023/2024 government budget towards loan guarantees for Lulutai airlines’ maintenance services.

Former Minister of Finance Dr ‘Aisake Eke, and MP for Tongatapu 5, asked the Minister of Finance Tiofilusi Titiuti in Parliament to explain the two figures.

Dr Eke asked Hon. Titiuti to explain why the budget did not bring forward the $10.1 million from the previous budget and add it up with the $3.3 million in the 2023 / 2024 budget.

Dr Eke said it could be that Lulutai airlines had paid off the TP$10.1 million, but as far as he understood the situation that was not possible because the airline had been struggling financially because of Covid and other causes.

The Minister vaguely briefly answered Dr Eke’s questions in Tongan.

The Minister said this was an agreement for the value of the guarantee to be provided in the budget annually, implying that the TP$10.1 million loan by Lulutai was still guaranteed by the government, but was not brought forward in the 2023/2024 budget.

According to the Hansard, the Minister said in Tongan: “Fekau’aki mo hono guarantee ‘o hono hono maintenance, hono maintenance ko eni ko ē ‘o e vaka ka na’e ‘i ai pē ‘a e ‘a e felotoi fakata’u pē fakata’u pē ‘a hono pē ko e ta’u fakapa’anga lolotonga eni ‘oku hā ai ‘a e amount ko eni ko e guarantee ko hono fakahoko ko ē ko ē ‘o e ‘o e hangē pē ‘oku hā atu ‘o hono maintenance ‘o e ‘o e ‘oku tu’u ma’u pē he maintenance pea kapau ‘e ‘osi e ta’u ‘oku ‘ikai ke ngāue’aki pea ‘oku hoko leva ki he ta’u hoko.”.

Hon. Titiuti said the figure for 2023/2024 was shown as maintenance and if the money was not used it would be transferred to the following year.

Since the airline began operations, there has been concern about how much experience the senior management of Lulutai has had in operating an airline and about its financial prospects.

Kaniva News has asked Lulutai chief executive Poasi Tei for comment.

For more information

Real Tonga ready to fill gap left by loss of Lulutai services, says former airline’s boss

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