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NOUMEA, New Caledonia (Oceania Flash, Sept. 30) – New Caledonia's tourism and aviation stakeholders on Wednesday accused budget airline Pacific Blue of providing "false excuses" in postponing its inaugural flight to the French Pacific territory next month.

The inaugural was to have taken place on October 12.

But in a statement earlier this week, Pacific Blue's head of strategies David Huttner said he would put the New Caledonia project on hold until clear answers are given to his company.

Huttner mentioned a boycott by some New Caledonia travel agents, whom he said were reluctant to sell Pacific Blue flights.

He also mentioned high prices for services provided to the airline at Nouméa's La Tontouta airport.

He also said the approval granted by New Caledonia's government on August 12 only allowed a connection from Brisbane,Australia, but not from Melbourne or Sydney, where the main Australian tourist source markets are located.

New Caledonia's government member of parliament Didier Leroux told the daily newspaper Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes he regretted Pacific Blue's decision to postpone its flights to New Caledonia, but that he also believed these were "false excuses".

Leroux, who is in charge of air transport, also denied that his government was trying to reduce Pacific Blue's competitiveness on the local market through a control of its tariffs.

"New Caledonia has always maintained control on air transport tariffs and it has accepted those announced by Virgin Blue. The only thing that we refused was a launching promotion for tickets as low as 11,000 French Pacific Francs (US$110), because we believed this would have been tantamount to dumping", he said.

Pacific Blue is the offshoot of Virgin Blue.

Regarding the perceived high prices at the Nouméa airport, Leroux local Tontouta Air Services (TAS) was billing all landing companies (including Qantas) at the same price "except for Air Calédonie International, and this is normal because Air Calédonie International represents 70 percent of TAS's turnover".

Tontouta Air Services Chairman François Guichard however acknowledged tarmac services in New Caledonia were "higher than in Fiji or Vanuatu, for instance".

"But it's the same for everyone and everyone knows that".

On the alleged boycott from local travel agents, Leroux also denied the accusation, saying "they have never organised such boycott, but at the same time, they do not want to work under any conditions".

Leroux however added some travel agents' reluctance to sell Pacific Blue tickets could be explained by the fact that they resent the low-cost company mainly relying on Internet for bookings.

"I don't really see how we could be boycotting a company that claims it can do without travel agents and mainly relies on Internet bookings", New Caledonia's travel agents union Vice-President Jean-Marie Lebreton said.

According to Leroux, the connection to Brisbane only is a direct result of government-to-government negotiations between France and Australia in 1961 and later in 1996.

In 2000, New Caledonia took over from metropolitan France on civil aviation matters.

"So from day one, Virgin knew that there were only two weekly slots available, all the rest is for Qantas".

"Virgin is obviously seeking a number of excuses not to land here or at least postpone its flights... This is a pity, because it was a good opportunity for New Caledonia to see more Australian tourists", Leroux said.

Earlier this month, Pacific Blue landed for the first time in Fiji and Vanuatu.

It has also announced a possible new link to the Cook Islands, via Christchurch (New Zealand), beginning November 20 and pending final agreements from the government in Rarotonga.

The Australian International Air Services Commission has last week endorsed the plan.

Further East of the Pacific, Pacific Blue also mentioned French Polynesia as one of its possible future destinations

September 30, 2004

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