By Kalafi Moala
Nuku’alofa, Tonga: Why Lulutai Airlines was given the go ahead to fly when there are major lingering questions on the airworthiness of its airplanes, and the absence of a reliable compliance certification process, are key things the Prime Minister and Government must answer to the public.
There are crucial safety concerns being raised as to the reliability, and in fact, truthfulness of the answers coming from the Prime Minister and his Lulutai Airlines Board.
Controversy first appeared when the Prime Minister a week ago denied that Lulutai Airlines CEO Maikolo Faasolo was not demoted because he was not the CEO. In the meantime, it was confirmed against statements by the Prime Minister that there is an employment contract for Mr. Faasolo as CEO signed on 17 August 2020. Mr. Faasolo signed the contract on his behalf and Edgar Cocker, Chief Secretary and Secretary to Cabinet signed for Lulutai as company secretary.
The previous week of-course was the puzzling question of why Government did not go into a joint venture with Real Tonga Airlines to operate the domestic airline service. Real Tonga has the expertise and experience, as well as the equipment, and with Government’s deep pockets, there is a high probability of a successful public/private venture.
The country had been without a domestic air service for 4 months, yet Tevita Palu of Real Tonga Airlines and Palu Aviation, said that a joint venture with Government could have put an airplane in the air in just a few days. But it became clear by the day that Government did not want a joint venture. They wanted to start their own airline.
But moving on from one controversy to another built on deception, we are faced now with far more serious issues concerning the safety requirements of the planes and operation of Lulutai Airlines.
Lulutai Airlines launches its first flight
While the skies above Tongatapu was filled with the noise of an airplane flying on the morning of Thursday 24 September, the questions that were flying around on the ground, however, were indicative of something fundamentally wrong and untruthful about the formation and quick launching of the Government’s Lulutai Airlines in just a few short months.
Prime Minister Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa, chairperson of the Lulutai Airlines Board, had spoken of the involvement of PASO (Pacific Aviation Safety Office) in the process of certification of Lulutai. PASO’s name keep getting injected into public speeches and conversations giving false information that it was involved in the Lulutai compliance certification process.
Likewise, Minister of Infrastructure ‘Akosita Lavulavu and Lulutai Board member, assured the public in her speech at the recent launching ceremony of the airline that PASO had been involved in the certification process and they followed all legal and safety protocol.
PASO (Pacific Aviation Safety Office) denies involvement
But PASO based in Port Vila, Vanuatu has denied involvement. They apparently submitted a work plan to CAD (Civil Aviation Division) in Tonga but it was not accepted. Whatever assessments are being done by CAD now is without PASO’s involvement at all.
According to an official source from PASO, CAD has the sovereign right to use other inspectors, and to accept those inspectors’ assessments. However, the Government and in particular, Civil Aviation Division (CAD) of Tonga, should not be making statements that PASO is involved because it is false information.
But why would Government lie about the involvement of PASO? Why would the Prime Minister and CAD Director, Kilifi Havea, give misleading information that PASO is involved? One possible explanation is to give a sense of security to the traveling public that the region’s Aviation Safety body is behind the compliance certification of Lulutai.
Also, in 2004 Tonga signed the PICASST Treaty (Pacific Island Civil Aviation Safety and Security Treaty) which is responsible for aviation safety and security in the Pacific Region, including New Zealand and Australia. PASO is involved in carrying out their aviation safety measures in the region.
Tevita Palu has confirmed to this reporter that his companies, Real Tonga and Palu Aviation, has over the past 7 years gone through stringent implementation of the certification and ongoing audit process.
“This was done through PASO and utilized proper personnel who had the necessary qualifications and experience,” he said. It is not something to be taken lightly as safety is a most important requirement in operating an airline.
But again, the question looms as to why the Lulutai Board headed by the Prime Minister seemed to be in a hurry to launch the new airline before all the compliance issues are properly sorted?
Conflict of interest with the Civil Aviation Division, Kilifi Havea
Kilifi Havea, Director of Aviation (CAD)
To get an understanding of some of the real issues, we may need to take a further look at the Government’s relationship and perspective on Tevita Palu and Real Tonga Airlines; and also the alleged less than credible role played by Director Kilifi Havea and CAD.
Mr. Havea, who is married to the Prime Minister’s niece, is accused of conflict of interest as director of CAD, yet he is the front person in setting up Lulutai Airlines, including the recruitment of workers. Real Tonga leaders believe there have been biased decisions made against them by CAD (Kilifi Havea). There is a feeling that despite the financial difficulties they were going through as a result of Covid 19, as well as other factors, the Government seemed set to shut them down.
Requests by Real Tonga for assistance was ignored, and for a joint venture turned down. Tevita Palu said that during the process of downsizing their operation which included laying off staff, the Government decided to set up its own airline instead or supporting Real Tonga or creating a joint venture.
Government through CAD suspended Real Tonga’s AOC (Airline Operating Certificate). “So, since June to today, our AOC is still suspended while our Government has been busy setting up its own airline,” Tevita Palu said. “In the best interest of the traveling public, it would have been best to support Real Tonga, which is what every other country is doing in support of an existing airline; not starting up its own.”
“We had made an application to PASO via CAD, but after some time, we inquired and found out that PASO has not received any application from CAD on behalf of Real Tonga. The application was still sitting at the CAD office without our knowledge,” Tevita Palu said.
There is also the consideration that if international agencies such as ICAO (International Civil Aviation Organization) or even the Governments of Australia, New Zealand, and Fiji were aware of the PASO non-involvement in the compliance certification of Lulutai Airlines, they may issue a travel advisory against Tonga. And especially if the MA60 is part of their fleet.
In the interest of public safety, transparency, and accountability to the taxpayers who are funding Lulutai Airlines, the Prime Minister and the Board of Lulutai Airlines must explain their decisions to launch an airline based on misinformation and misleading statements that jeopardize safety of the public and security of the Kingdom of Tonga.