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By Savea Sano Malifa Editor and Publisher, Samoa Observer

APIA, Samoa (July 2, 2001 - Samoa Observer/PINA Nius Online)---It’s not surprising that Polynesian Airlines’ dilemma is refusing to go away. It keeps popping up here and there like a restless ghost choking with bitterness.

Over the last two weeks in Parliament, the airline’s financial troubles dominated debate. One MP even called for the dismissal of the company’s Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Richard Gates, who has yet to respond publicly.

Meantime, the airline is continuing to absorb millions of Tala belonging to the public. This week, Parliament passed an additional $5 million to keep the airline flying. It had previously approved $15 million for the same purpose, raising the total injection in this year’s budget to $20 million.

[NOTE: US$ 1.00 = Tala 3.4602 on July 2, 2001]

Although the government is insisting the airline has turned profits, it’s hard to accept this since financial statements needed for verification have not yet been made public. Now this $20 million injection has only helped enhance the public’s disbelief.

Even more so since last year, the government guaranteed a total of over $20 million in requested "lease facilities." Now they’re talking excitedly about the new Boeing 737-800 arriving later this year, but have yet to disclose how many more millions will be needed in "lease facilities" for that venture.

So at this point, it’s safe to say that everyone is dreading the thought of this debt-ridden airline milking the country’s meager resources dry. And when the government is continuing to stubbornly defend it as if the country would fall apart without it, everyone is wincing with fear.

The government should realize by now that no matter how hard it tries to explain the airline’s problems away, they will continue to stare it in the face. Unblinkingly. They may end up haunting it into oblivion.

Indeed, the airline’s fiasco is a legacy our political leaders will be ashamed to tell their children about. By the time it’ll have been sorted out - if anyone can do that in this lifetime - the majority of the population will be dead. We will all be dead long before Polynesian Airlines’ debts are repaid. It’s a cruel crime against society. Perpetrated by whom? Need the question be answered?

Sure, it’s good for Samoa to have an airline. It employs 400 people as the government has kept reminding everyone, and helps with the national tourism drive. But it has to be financially independent, instead of it always depending on public handouts in the $20 million bracket.

This is pure madness -- 400 workers running an airline with one leased Boeing 737-800 and two light planes, with five top workers being paid over $2.5 million annually. Where else in the world is such an airline operating profitably?

The government is proud that the airline is able to keep 400 employed, so it feels justified in injecting millions of Tala into the company. This is ludicrous. It’s synonymous with reaching out with one hand to help and breaking the neck in the process. Why isn’t anyone advising the government on simple economics, logic? Where are the "lau‘ia?"

We suggest that while waiting for privatization, the airline should cut costs, trim its workforce by half and change the costly executive. This way, the public may not have to come up with another $20 million in the next few months to keep the airline flying.

Six years after the present management has been in control, the airline is still relying on the government for funding. There are no signs of profitability up ahead.

It’s a similar story to the one when the previous management was replaced for "dragging the country towards bankruptcy." By that time, more than $50 million in debt had been incurred. The public is still paying for that now with $10 million annually.

Now the present management has so far accumulated some $56 million in "lease facilities" and loans guaranteed by the government. And like the last time, the government does not seem to think this is a serious problem. In fact, it has agreed to lease the new Boeing 737-800.

Sometime ago, Mr. Gates and Prime Minister Tuilaepa denied a report by this newspaper that the government was injecting $20 million into the airline.

While Mr. Gates attacked the report as irresponsible, the PM wrote: "Enough is enough." Now that Parliament has approved the $20 million injection, would the two gentlemen please explain their previous denial?

We all know that Samoan oratory would describe any abuse of public resources as "o le afu toto o tagata uma" (people’s sweat stained with blood). That’s how we feel with the way Polynesian Airlines has been abusing public resources. Now there’s another $20 million worth of "bloody sweat" they’re pouring down the drain.

For additional reports from the Samoa Observer, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/Samoa Observer.

Pacific Islands News Association (PINA) Website: http://www.pinanius.org 

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