SUVA, Fiji (Fijilive, Jan. 3) - Passengers on an Air Fiji flight from Lakeba to Suva Monday got the fright of their lives when the plane they were in failed to take off despite two attempts, because of overloading.

A schoolteacher on the flight said he and three other passengers had to get off the plane with their luggage and other extra cargo had to be off-loaded.

The Air Fiji flight 454, which is made to carry nine passengers, had the two extra seats loaded with cargo.

"The plane was obviously overloaded and even the agent complained to the pilot about it but he took off anyway along the runway."

"As we were going along the runway, there was no lift and when we reached halfway, the pilot realized that he wouldn’t be able to lift-off so he used the left over space to control the plane. Because it was already speeding, the pilot had no choice but to turn onto the area that is never used to get the plane to slow down and under control," said the teacher.

"When we got back to the terminal, the pilot told us there was not enough wind for the plane to take off. But I told the pilot for me and another guy to get off because it was obvious to us that it was overloaded."

"I mean, we passengers, we are all Lauans, you know, we are big. There was this lady, she weighed about 100kg, and I am 115kg and another guy about 130 kg and two others in their 90s. And to top that up, we had our luggage and the extra cargo they were carrying over to Lakeba. And that plane is small, it is only a nine-seater."

"The pilot said it was okay that we were getting off and he again attempted to take off and exactly the same thing happened again, with the plane ending up in the ditch area just like the first time."

"This time, all the passengers were worried and they all opted to get off. The pilot off-loaded their luggage and the cargo and he said fine, he was flying over by himself. Then three others decided that they would fly with him with only one package of cargo and their luggage," said the teacher.

"The plane was able to go but for the rest of us, we are still here in Lakeba. I have decided not to go at all. I am not going to risk my life just because Air Fiji wants to make extra business by overloading their planes and risking our lives," the teacher said.

The teacher said it was not the first time such a Lakeba flight had received problems because of overloading.

"A few years ago, this Indian pilot landed on the fence and he died. Lucky he was only loaded with cargo," he said.

Labour Minister Kenneth Zinck said he would be sending his Occupational Health and Safety regulation officers to monitor the loading of planes.

"At the moment, we have some officers monitoring the boats and this is a new issue to me, so I will have my men there as soon as possible," Zinck said.

"Those dealing with these loading of planes, including the airport and airline staff should be more responsible and cautious because we are dealing with lives here."

Zinck said he is aware of the accident at Nausori Airport where a pilot died adding that safety should be everyone’s business.

"They should be well aware of the maximum amount of luggage a plane can handle and not just overload it anyhow. Those who fly should not be put at risk," Zinck added.

"Safety is everybody’s business including Government, the private sector, the airlines and even the unions. I will be asking my men to keep a vigilant eye on these issues," concluded Zinck.

January 3, 2003

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