Lulutai airlines may be forced to scrap its Saab 340B aircraft which crash-landed at Fua’amotu airport: Expert

The best option for Lulutai airlines is to write off its aircraft which had crash-landed at Fua’amotu domestic airport yesterday, an expert said.  

The Saab 340B appeared to have suffered an apparent loss of hydraulic pressure and problems with the landing gear preventing the pilot from controlling it.

The aircraft then had to return to Nuku’alofa without landing at Vava’u according to its schedule.

The aircraft sustained substantial damage after it collided into a concrete structure off the runway at about 2pm.

Former Cabinet Minister Sangster Saulala who was in Vava’u at the time of the incident told Kaniva News the aircraft landed there at 10.30am yesterday before it returned to Nuku’alofa with passengers. It is understood that that was its flight number L812 and its returned flight from Vava’u number L813 at 12pm.

According to Lulutai airlines official schedules on its Facebook page the Saab was scheduled to return to Vava’u yesterday on its flight number L814 and it was expected to land there at 1pm. However, while it was about to land it suddenly changed direction and turned away from Vava’u.

Reports said the captain subsequently announced there had been a technical problem and they were returning to Nuku’alofa.

Cabin crew reportedly told the passengers there was a hydraulic problem.

Passengers reportedly said there was a massive boom when the aircraft landed before it went sideways, seats broke, then the aircraft suddenly stopped as if it had hit something.

All passengers were safely evacuated and no one injured but one man was reportedly carried off the plane in a stretcher.

In a press release the airline reported the aircraft had safely landed back and was taxiing to the terminal when upon turning the aircraft experienced a technical issue, turned and hit a cement block on the side of the apron with the right-hand wing becoming lodged on the cement block.

Previous damages

The aircraft was taken out of service earlier this year for an engine overhaul. Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku said at the time the government had been told to ground the aircraft.

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

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

In May 2020, the aircraft had suffered a bird strike causing engine problems on departure from Vava’u. It returned for a safe landing, but appears to have been grounded before later taking into air again.

The Saab 340 is derived from a Swedish design which first flew in 1983. Several hundred of the aircraft are still flying.

Expert weighs in

An aircraft engineer who did not want to be identified told Kaniva News that from his experience the Saab had been extensively damaged after yesterday’s incident.

He said the cost to fix the hydraulic system could be around $100,000.00 but if Lulutai chooses to fix the structural damage the cost of repairs would be more than the aircraft is worth.

He believed the aircraft should be written off.

Airlines controversy

The incident comes in the wake of the government being accused of falsifying its budget to hide the investment of millions of pa’anga on Lulutai airlines and the purchase of its recent new aircraft. The Prime Minister denied this and said the purchase was included in the budget as “gifts and shares”.

It is understood the purchase included a loan from the National Retirement Fund.

The government was also accused of hiding behind the Companies Act to allow Cabinet Ministers to continue as members of Lulutai’s Board of Directors although the law says they can only retrain membership within 12 months.

Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku insisted that it was up to the government’s consideration to decide when it is fit to cease its membership.  

The Lulutai airlines is fully funded by the government since its inception in 2020.

Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku was also accused of failing in his role as the chairperson of the airline’s board of directors by not responding to Parliamentary letters by people’s MPs asking for financial statements for the years 2020/2021, 2021/2022, 2022/23 and 2023 2024.

His vote of no confidence motions, in which he had survived recently, said the government’s registration of the airlines under the Companies Act was unlawful because all government’s businesses must be registered under the Public Enterprises Act, something the Prime Minister has also denied.

Under the Companies Act the government does not have to provide Lulutai’s financial statements to the public or Parliament something the Opposition MPs argued it did not make sense. The Opposition also argued this was why the law requires all government businesses to be registered under the Public Enterprise Act so that the Parliament could access their records.

The government had put $10.1 million in its 2022/2023 and $3.3 million on its 2023/2024 budgets towards loan guarantees for Lulutai airlines’ maintenance services. As we reported previously, questions in Parliament about these budget allocations received vague responses from the Prime Minister and his Minister of Finance.

Operating at a loss

The Saab’s latest serious damage is a devastating news for the government’s attempts to revive the domestic services.

It has been estimated that the government had spent about TOP$18 million so far on the airlines after it replaced the Real Tonga Airlines in 2020, Kaniva News has learned.

A reliable source told us the airlines is currently operating at a great loss.

In 2021 the former Tu’i’onetoa government reached an in-principle agreement to sell the national airlines to the privately-owned Flyniu airlines.

Tu’i’onetoa had indicated at the time in an e-mail seen by Kaniva News the Lulutai airlines was available to be purchased by Flyniu.

However, the Tu’i’onetoa government was ousted in the 2022 premiership election.

Australian assistance

The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs had awarded a tender for the maintenance of the aircraft.

The Australian government had also recently provided the Tongan government with AU$1.25 million to help with transporting of Tonga’s newly purchased aircraft, train pilots to fly it, purchase spare parts needed and ensure its smooth transition into servicing the people of Tonga.

Australia has been providing support to Lulutai Airlines since mid-2022 in critical areas, such as training for pilots and engineers, a wet-lease arrangement with Fiji Airways to operate regular flights while their fleet was grounded for maintenance, as well as regional cooperation and collaboration with other Pacific Island airlines.

They are also working with Lulutai Airlines to develop a long-term sustainable business plan to support fleet growth as well as good reservations and sales system enhancements.

Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku had stated recently that the new aircraft would help Lulutai meet the demands of local travel.

What is hydraulic failure?

Aircraft hydraulic failure is a critical situation that can pose serious safety risks to the operation of an aircraft.

The hydraulic system is a crucial component of an aircraft’s flight control and landing gear operation, as well as other important functions such as brakes, spoilers, and thrust reversers.

Hydraulic failure can result in the loss of these functions, leading to reduced control, increased workload for pilots, and potential catastrophic consequences.

Hydraulic systems are responsible for transmitting and controlling high-pressure fluid to operate various mechanical and electrical components.

They provide the necessary force to operate flight control surfaces, landing gear, and other critical systems. In case of hydraulic failure, the ability of the pilot to control the aircraft may be compromised, leading to loss of control, reduced maneuverability, and increased risk of accidents.

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