Lulutai airlines’ newly purchased Twin Otter is still sitting in the hangar this evening Tuesday 16 after delays in getting a part from overseas.
An expert said the problem should be of concern to the aircraft’s long-term service.
Passengers booked to fly on the 18-seater plane from the outer islands to main island Tongatapu last week were told to stay in touch. Others have had to take inter-island ferries instead after the plane was grounded on Wednesday, January 10.
As Kaniva News reported at the time, several complaints about the aircraft’s flight cancellations and lack of public notice and responses from Lulutai have been shared on social media, including Kaniva News.
The outrage was part of an ongoing backlash against the kingdom’s domestic flight services which kept popping up amidst years of flight delays, unexpected cancellations and poor communication from the Lulutai airlines.
The Twin Otter is grounded because it needs a part, a reliable source told Kaniva News.
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We contacted the airline’s chief executive Poasi Tei today to confirm whether the Twin Otter was still being grounded awaiting a part.
We asked him to tell us which part in the aircraft that needed replacement, why it had to be repaired and how much it cost.
We also asked him to tell us when the aircraft was expected to fly again.
Seemed too early
An aircraft expert, who asked not to be identified, said it seemed too early for a mechanical fault to develop since the Twin Otter only started flying last month. He said parts were expensive.
Maintaining its current heavy flight schedule would not help in the long run, the expert said. According to Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku the aircraft has been flying up to 16 hours a day.
The Australian government has provided funds to support the aircraft’s operations and train engineers.
The Prime Minister previously said without Australia’s “financial and technical support”, the Lulutai airline would not have been able to purchase the Twin Otter.
The expert previously said before the Twin Otter was purchased late last year it was grounded in China since 2018.
He said the five-year period of the aircraft’s inactivity from 2018 to 2023 should have been a concern for Tonga because aircraft parts had certain timeframes which required replacements when they were expired. The Twin Otter was flown to Wagga Wagga in Australia to prepare it for service before being flown to Tonga.
Lulutai airline has three aircraft. The Saab 340 crashed into a cement block last month after it was forced to return from Vava’u due to a hydraulic failure issue.
Its Harbin Y-12 is the only aircraft currently serviceable. It was grounded after it veered off the runway during its take-off run on ‘Eua island in July last year. It was later hit by a tow tractor at the Fua’amotu domestic airport.
It has been reported that part of the purchase of the Twin Otter included a loan of about TP$14 million from Tonga’s National Retirement Fund. The Prime Minister had been accused of failing to confirm the loan in Parliament. We previously contacted Hon. Hu’akavameiliku, who is also the chairman of the Lulutai board of directors, for comment.
Subject of controversy
The aircraft has been a point of controversy since Kaniva News broke the news about its purchase last year. The news caused an uproar in Parliament, with MPs from the people’s bench calling on the Prime Minister to cancel the purchase while the Nobles urged the Prime Minister to confirm whether the purchase was true.
The opposition argued that the government should have released the air service to a private company, one of the things the king mentioned when he blasted the former government for its lack of accountability.
Kaniva News has been reliably told the airlines is operated at huge loss. One source, who asked not to be identified, claimed to us last year that the government had spent more that TP$18 million so far on the airlines after it replaced the Real Tonga Airlines in 2020.
The Tongan government had put TP$10.1 million in its budget 2022/2023 and $3.3 million in its 2023/2024 government budget towards loan guarantees for Lulutai airlines’ maintenance services despite the Prime Minister repeatedly telling the House the government did not own the airline.