Why is Tonga Gov’t adamant about new airline start-up instead of working together with private sector?

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Tevita Palu, CEO Real Tonga Airlines; PM Pohiva Tu'ionetoa

By Kalafi Moala

 

2 September 2020, In times of economic uncertainty and global turmoil resulting from COVID – 19, it is crucial to come up with a satisfactory and practical solution to resolve the current crisis of having no domestic air service in Tonga. But the Government seems to be set in an unwavering path to start its own airline, named by the King as Lulutai Airlines, and scheduled to begin its inaugural flight on September 21.

 

The ideal solution to strengthen Tonga’s flailing airline industry is a joint venture, one in which the Government and Real Tonga work together in a partnership to operate the airline. This will require the Government and Tevita Palu, CEO of Real Tonga, to return to the negotiating table, without any hidden agenda and bring honesty and transparency to the table.

The Government must realize that competing with the private sector in the airline industry is a no-win situation.

In a humble and apologetic mood, Tevita Palu, owner of Real Tonga and Palu Aviation, the sole provider of domestic air service for the past several years, wrote to this reporter: “It’s been four months now without air service and I cannot foresee air service return to normal soon.”

And then he added, “I believe should Government and Real Tonga/Palu Aviation combine our resources, we will get an air service back within a couple of days.”

His response to the call for a public/private sector joint venture – for Government and Real Tonga to partner in running a domestic air service – is a loud ‘yes’. There was so much hope in his willingness to strike a deal with the Government. The glass was no longer half empty! It is half full. All is needed is for the Government to get on board.

Tevita Palu says, “We have been flexible and willing to work with Government for years now, to ensure we offer a good reliable air service for Tonga. Unfortunately, politics and other matters took over and the travel public are now suffering.”

“We made several recommendations to Government without succeeding so far as they may have their own agenda,” say Tevita.

Tevita said he wrote to the Prime Minister on a weekly basis to update him on air service status and offer his service but without acknowledgement.

The Government under the leadership of Prime Minister Pohiva Tu’i’onetoa, is buckling under strong urging from the Vava’u lobby of its People’s Party. They think a Government run airline would be able to offer cheaper airfares than Real Tonga. But the advertised airfare for their first flights to Vava’u is only about 10% cheaper than those of Real Tonga.

There are also six former employees of Real Tonga who have moved over to Lulutai Airlines, including pilots and engineers. There may also be more that are seeking jobs with the new airline.  It is reported that these former employees may have misrepresented Real Tonga and not supportive of a joint venture for one reason or another. “Most of these professional employees have been trained and licensed under us over the past 18 years,” Tevita said.

In making decisions to start its own airline the Government has also ignored the warnings of history. Yes, remember Royal Tongan Airlines? Remember the costly collapse?

It is a decision that will cost the tax payers of Tonga an estimated $80 million dollars before the domestic air service can operate with some normality, considering the compliance requirements for the planes, mechanical services, staffing, and so on. And there is a greater possibility of failure than success.

And with COVID – 19 not showing any signs of slowing down any time soon, is this a wise decision from our Government leaders to take huge risks with the taxpayers’ hard earned money?

At risk is Palu Aviation itself, the engineering arm of Tevita Palu’s business. They not only have a licensed facility at the airport, but they are also the only professionally licensed company that services all airplanes flying in and out of Tonga. It has been reported that Government wants to replace this core service of Palu Aviation with their own – once they have the trained personnel to carry out the service.

Tevita Palu said that he had approached the Government several times with a plan for a joint public/private sector venture to provide a domestic air service for Tonga. But the Government has denied they have been approached with a plan. It has put the blame on Palu, saying that he does not seem interested to consult with them on a workable plan for a joint venture. Well, at least it depends who you are talking to in Government, as there seems to be different voices representing the Government on the airline issue.

The most effective way to hide non-transparency is to talk a lot, yet answer nothing to the many questions raised by the public. Most Government talk is to themselves. No one is listening because they do not know who to listen to, and whether the right information is being given out.

The wisest man who ever lived, King Solomon, said in Proverbs: “If you listen to constructive criticism, you will be at home among the wise.”

But let us look at the recent vicious attacks on Real Tonga and Tevita Palu, published in the Government sponsored newspaper of the People’s Party, the Kalonikali. Tevita has come out with the correct information, denying as false the misleading accusations published.

Who is really speaking for Government has become a real issue – is it the Prime Minister or his Political Party? The current Government has done in communication what the former Government had done. They do not accept criticism against them; and explain away their actions, as well as launch coordinated media attacks on those who stand in their way.

In the beginning when this Government came into power, the majority of Tongans were happy and hopeful. People did not want to live anymore in an environment of corruption, self-seeking behavior, and bullying of opponents as was in the previous Government. The thinking about this Government was positive for they seemed different in policy and actions from the previous one. But as time goes on it is becoming increasingly apparent that this government may be thinking and behaving the same way as the previous Government.

The bullying and undue behavior against a Tongan businessman, a leader in civil aviation, and his troubled private sector company, has really exposed the kind of character flaws behind this Government.

The wise words of King Solomon again may help to bring those in power common sense again: “A tyrannical ruler lacks judgment, but he who hates ill-gotten gain will enjoy a long life.” (Proverbs 28: 16).

 

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