PM claims nobody interested in taking over Lulutai; adamant gov’t will keep running airline despite king’s concerns

Prime Minister Hu’akavameiliku claimed this afternoon that  no one was interested in operating Lulutai airlines and this was why his government was still operating it.

PM Hu’akavameiliku

However, the claim was misleading because two former airline operators have repeatedly expressed interest in taking over the service.

The Prime Minister made his comment during a streamed press conference in Nuku’alofa this afternoon following King Tupou VI asked why the government continued to be involved in private business. 

Hon. Hu’akavameiliku was responding to questions from local media who wanted to know his response to His Majesty’s questioning of what he termed the “secrecy” surrounding the government’s decision making about the airline.

The Prime Minister did not answer that question directly and instead said the payment for Lulutai’s new DeHavilland Twin Otter had been submitted to Parliament. He smiled while he said it.

He also said the preliminary report on the Saab 340 aircraft crash had already been released to the public.

He also responded to the king’s concerns about the government’s involvement with Lulutai by saying that his government would continue to do so.

In Tongan he said: “Ka ‘i he taimi ni ‘e ‘ikai fai ha lele i he taimi ko ee oku ai ha ki’i palopalema tau ki’i pine ai leva”.

This translates as: “At the moment we would not abandon it and run while there is a bit of problem, let’s get on with it”.  

The Prime Minister also asked in Tongan:  “If we, Lulutai withdraw from the airlines services would there be any airline services for the islands?

“Is there anyone who can buy the government out and can operate the airlines privately?”

He said those questions were not new as they had been previously raised and discussed.

He said there were discussions to engage Fiji Airways and Air New Zealand for the domestic airlines.

However, the Prime Minister appeared to be trying to find an answer after Kele’a Voice editor Teisa Pohiva asked why he did not bring back Real Tonga airline.

“Aaah…that’s another airline. I mean it would be just changing names if it was changed to Real Tonga”, the Prime Minister replied.

He said  it had to be confirmed whether the Real Tonga could afford to buy Lulutai airlines or not.

The Prime Minister failed to mention that both previous operators, Real Tonga and Fly Niu had publicly shown their interest in replacing the Lulutai airlines and operating the domestic airlines if given the chance.

In 2019 Fly Niu director ‘Atu Finau publicly announced the then government’s decision that his company would start flying in Tonga by December that year.

He told Kaniva news at the time the government was expecting him to submit his airline license application as soon as he could. However, that deal failed to go ahead after the death of the then Prime Minister ‘Akilisi Pohiva that same year.

In 2021 Fly Niu and the then government reached an in-principle agreement for Fly Niu to buy Lulutai airlines. However, that deal again ended unsuccessfully after the government was taken over by the current administration. 

The Real Tonga also announced publicly its interest in reviving the domestic airlines.

CEO Tevita Palu told Kaniva News recently he had met with several authorities, including the Prime Minister, the Minister Civil Aviation and the Minister of Finance to seek their support.

He said aircraft from New Zealand were readily available for delivery to Tonga and were waiting on Tongan Government approval.

Last year, Palu and Finau told Kaniva News they had agreed to work together if the government sold Lulutai airline to Fly Niu.

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