Kiwi flyer pulls Tonga services

GREG NINNESS
Last updated 05:00 03/03/2013
plane
Chatham Pacific pulled services earlier than expected.

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The New Zealand-owned company which operates Tonga's sole domestic airline has pulled out of scheduled services and from tomorrow will only provide charter services in the kingdom.

Chathams Pacific, which has been the sole provider of scheduled domestic air travel within Tonga for the last five years, pulled the plug when a local Tongan aviation services company decided to set up its own airline, Real Tonga, in competition with Chathams.

Chathams' announcement that it was closing its doors caused widespread concern in the Tongan tourism industry which is heavily reliant on a domestic air service to transport travellers to and from resorts which are scattered around Tonga's islands and can be an hour's flight from the international airport.

Real Tonga had not intended to start operations until the the main tourist season about the middle of the year. So Chathams' decision to cease operations yesterday raised the spectre of tourists being stranded at Tonga's international airport or in their resorts, without access to connecting flights.

The move is also believed to have jeopardised a New Zealand government-sponsored marketing campaign promoting Tonga as a destination for New Zealand tourists. Industry sources have told Sunday-Star Times the campaign was due to start last month, but was put on hold because of the uncertainty over the domestic travel situation.

However, Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully's office was unable to confirm, by deadline, the status of the project or how much money the government had contributed to it.

Tonga is a small but growing destination for New Zealanders, with 17,640 people going there from this country in the year to January, about the same number who travelled to Hong Kong in the same period, according to Statistics NZ.

Chathams Pacific is owned by Craig Emeny who also owns Chathams Air which provides services to the Chatham Islands.

Emeny said the cyclical nature of Tonga's tourist industry meant Chathams Pacific ran at a loss during the off peak months of February to May, and relied on the peak July to January season to survive.

Emeny said he didn't believe the Tongan market was big enough for two domestic airlines to be profitable, so he had pulled the plug now to minimise his losses.

However, it's likely that Chathams Pacific would also have been facing considerable capital costs over the next few years because of the age of its fleet.

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One of its planes is a DC3 which is understood to be nearly 70 years old and is believed to be the only DC3 in the world still flying passengers on regularly scheduled commercial services.

Emeny said the company would retain its hangar in Tonga as a base for charter services, but most of its planes would be flown back to New Zealand. The looming chaos caused by Chatham Pacific's withdrawal from the market left Real Tonga scrambling to bring forward its plans by several months.

The crisis appears to have been avoided at the eleventh hour, when Real Tonga struck a deal to lease an aircraft from Air Vanuatu, which is due to arrive in Tonga and commence services tomorrow.

The company will start adding additional planes as demand for services builds towards the beginning of the peak season.

Real Tonga is owned by Palu Aviation Services which has contracts with Air New Zealand and Virgin to provide maintenance services to their aircraft in Tonga.

Its chief executive Tevita Palu, who is also an aircraft engineer, said the company had a different business plan from Chathams Pacific in that it would mainly operate a fleet of smaller, newer aircraft, which would allow it to offer more frequent services.

- Sunday Star Times

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