KANIVA COMMENTARY: Last night we said that the Tongan government needs to be absolutely transparent about the operations of Lulutai airlines.
This followed yet another round of concerns about the airlines’ operations after its recently acquired Twin Otter was grounded with unspecified problems.
We said in our last story that the Prime Minister and the CEO have a responsibility to be honest with the Tongan travelling public, to tourists and to the Australian government which has bailed out the airline through its generous financial assistance.
If they were, it might make it easier for everybody concerned. If the problem with the Twin Otter is minor, then people need to know. If it is major, people need to know. If there is a problem, no matter how big or small, then the people need to know.
That way passengers and the public might stop speculating and circulating rumours that will damage the airline’ reputation.
Now Lulutai has faced yet another crisis. According to reports, its Harbin Y12 plane broke down this morning, Wednesday 17, and two of its five scheduled flights were cancelled. It was finally fixed and was able to fly at 1.40pm in the afternoon, according to our source. Reports said passengers from Vava’u who had connecting flights were late to get their Air New Zealand flights this morning.
It is about time for the government to seriously rethink the way it runs the airline.
The Prime Minister is the Chair of the Lulutai board with Cabinet Ministers including Deputy Prime Minister Samiu Vaipulu and Civil Aviation Minister Sevenitiini Toumo’ua. They are the directors in the company. Regardless of the fact that the Prime Minister keeps telling Parliament that the government does not own Lulutai, the buck stops with him.
As we have said many times, the government needs to learn to communicate. It could take the simple step of setting up a professional communication service on its website by just downloading free plugins and closely engage with its passengers on its social media accounts.
Why is this so hard? Why does the management of the airline appear to lack the most basic problems solving skills and the will power to fix problems which have plagued the airline for the past three years?
The real question that needs to be considered is whether the government should be in the airline business at all. Tonga has a history of airlines that have staggered into the air and crashed in financial distress. Government interference has usually only made this worse.
The Prime Minister has already admitted that without massive Australian financial support, Lulutai would not have the Twin Otter. Is there any realistic chance of airline services continuing without a continued flow of dollars from Canberra? And how long would the Australian government tolerate such a situation?
Experts have said that Tonga is simply too small a market for any airline to make a profit. If that is the case, then radical re-thinking may be needed. The Tongan Government may have to admit that it cannot and should not run Lulutai and step right away from the airline business.
It may have to bring back the previous airline operators and ask them to form a consortium that will run the airline properly as a business. However, it may also have to be realistic and find ways to keep the Australian subsidy going. Australia’s Department of Foreign affairs is not a charity, but it may support a Tongan airline if it had a stake in the business as a shareholder, either directly or through a partnership with an Australian or New Zealand airline.
Tonga needs a viable airline service, not just to keep its internal economy going and to keep people connected, but to support the tourist industry which brings in much needed revenue.
The Tongan government needs to think seriously about the future of Lulutai airline and to consider all of its options. Firstly, however, it needs to begin communicating clearly, consistently and honestly with the public and passengers.