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By Giff Johnson

MAJURO, Marshall Islands (Marianas Variety, Feb. 10) – All air travel to remote outer islands in this central Pacific nation was halted for five days, with both planes in the national airline grounded for emergency maintenance.

One of the two planes got back into the air Wednesday, and even though the second plane was given the green light after two weeks in the hangar, the airline is also facing a pilot shortage and could not immediately resume flights until pilots return from overseas travel.

Hundreds of passengers had been stranded and dozens of flights cancelled while the planes underwent maintenance.

Without planes flying, the only way to get to islands in this nation of scattered low-lying islands is by ships that operate once every few months. Now, with one plane back in the air, Air Marshall Islands can fly about two-thirds of its scheduled routes.Air Marshall Islands, the government’s national airline, has only two airplanes. Its 30-seat Dash-8 plane developed engine problems requiring a new engine — that had to be flown in from the United States. Air Marshall Islands 19-seat Dornier was grounded for five days after mechanics discovered a small spot on the fuselage that was rusting through and had to have immediate body work done.

The cancellation of flights adds to the woes that the domestic airline has been facing since the start of 2005. After steady passenger increases from 2000 to 2004, passenger loads dropped10 percent to about 25,800 in 2005 — compared to 28,600 passengers carried in 2004.

Add to that many of Air Marshall Islands payroll checks bouncing for insufficient funds during its last payday, and it’s been a rough several weeks for the national airline.

"We were in the process of doing an engine change when the problem with the Dornier was found during a ‘walk-around’ (after a flight)," Air Marshall Islands general manager Dan Fitzpatrick said Wednesday.

An eight-inch by 12-inch spot on the belly of the plane was found to be seriously corroded.

The Dornier has "been in the weather for 14 years, the paint is old and it doesn’t provide the protection like when it’s new," he said.

Despite the difficulties, Fitzpatrick was optimistic that air service to the outer islands would be restored to normal soon once pilots return to fly the airline’s second plane.

February 10, 2006

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