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By Francis Uliau

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (March 30, 2000 – The Independent)---Papua New Guinea soldiers’ attitude to air travel has been a problem and could lead to a possible ban on the army using Air Niugini commercial flights.

Meantime, the carrier has decided that soldiers traveling in groups of 25 or more will need to charter planes.

This follows a second incident in less than a month where lives were again put in danger when an Air Niugini flight’s wiring was tampered with by four PNGDF soldiers in Vanimo, West Sepik Province.

The Air Niugini F28 flight, PX 141, was on its way to Wewak and then onto Port Moresby.

The first involved 27 soldiers on February 10 at Buka airport who threatened to "blow up the tires" of the aircraft, PX 251, if their bags were not uplifted. They also demanded that all civilian passengers and their baggage were to be offloaded, resulting in the flight being delayed for three hours.

Describing this as "a serious flight safety problem . . . caused by undisciplined behavior of some members of the PNGDF," the Air Niugini management (operations) said the Vanimo development also indicated that it is not only a group-related problem . . .but also a typical soldier’s attitude problem, as even a small group of four endangered the safety of another flight involving lives and properties."

Vanimo police confirmed the incident yesterday and said it all started when a drunken soldier was "rightfully" refused entry by airline personnel.

"The other three (soldiers) joined in and caused havoc at the tarmac," a police personnel told The Independent.

The officer said investigations into the incident are being conducted by Vanimo police station commander Senior Inspector Joe Poema. No arrests have been made.

Reports from Vanimo said one of the soldiers actually "tampered with the moving aircraft body and ripped off the wiring system that controls the landing gear, effectively endangering the lives of passengers and crew as well as his own."

The Air Niugini flight, PX 141, took off unknowingly and discovered the problem in mid-air. Appropriate emergency procedures were carried out and the plane landed safely at Wewak where engineers were consulted and went to work on the aircraft before the plane continued on to Port Moresby.

In a correspondence to PNGDF’s Brigadier General Karl Marlpo, dated March 14 2000, Air Niugini managing director Andrew Ogil stated that after the Buka incident, the airline "has taken restrictive measures whereby soldiers traveling in groups of more than 25 must charter an aircraft to enable successful uplift of soldiers and their bulky luggage."

"I await what measures (the) PNGDF management will take in view of this escalating behavior problem so that a conclusive position will be advised to PNGDF in terms of the airlines’ business continuity with PNGDF," Mr. Ogil said.

Air Niugini also warned in another correspondence on March 14 that operating into Bougainville is a big risk.

For additional reports from The Independent, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Independent (Papua New Guinea).

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