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Feasibility of international runways in question

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, April 18, 2008) –Developing an International Airport at Vava'u, is something the Tonga government is now considering, but because of the limitations of the outer island runways, they need to consider all the options.

This was revealed by the Minister of Transport Hon. Paul Karalus who said on April 14 in Neiafu, Vava'u, that a feasibility study may be undertaken before the end year to look at the possibility of extending the runway at Vava'u's Lupepau'u Airport to allow larger aircraft to fly in.

The problem is that the current location of the airport is very limited in terms of being able to extend it.

Outer island runways are too short for big passenger aircraft.

Paul said the Vava'u runway could be extended only through the village of Holonga, which would be a painful exercise. Another reason is that at the western end of the airport there is high ground that limits the landing performance.

"So if you are looking at having jet aircraft or large passenger aircraft flying to Vava'u, it is most certain that we would have to look at totally relocating the airport, which will be very expensive," he said.

Apart from being extremely expensive they would have to measure the cost against the frequency and the capacity of the aircraft coming in to see whether that was the best use of the money.

The feasibility study, he proposes is only for Vava'u.

"With the Ha'apai Airport there is a problem because where do you extend it to, but into the sea? So in some respects in both cases bigger equipment could come in but it would have to be those aircraft capable of using the existing runway lengths into both islands," he added.

Paul pointed out that the other alternative to consider, rather than developing an International airport in Vava'u, would be to have much higher frequency of flights coming in from larger airports in the region.

"For example, increased flights into Vava'u out of Pago Pago Airport in American Samoa, Faleolo Airport in Samoa, Nadi in Fiji or out of Fua'amotu, in Tongatapu; and Air Pacific will be flying into Vava'u out of Nadi very shortly.

"If you want larger aircraft coming in you are really talking about ones that are flying four to five hours, like a 737 jet, and to fly that into Vava'u with 150 seats it would only be once a month so you are definitely not going to get the frequency, and these are the factors we need to consider," he said.

"The critical issue here is to ensure high frequency of flights into and out of Vava'u with reliability and with schedule integrity but I know it is the wish of the Vava'u people that, yes, they want jets," laughed the Minister.

Chatham Pacific

With regards to the entry of the new domestic carrier Chatham Pacific, Paul said there had been some talk over whether Government has a single or two airline policy, "but my preference is that we make it available to anybody who can demonstrate the capability and has sufficient capital backing to operate an air service."

He said in the past the problem had often been inadequate capital for the airline to ensure it continued, and the lack of capital was usually seen in terms of not having ownership of the aircraft or may be the high rates of leasing aircraft.

"But in this instance we have Chatham Pacific setting up and not only do they own the aeroplanes they have a long operating history and have established a certain capital adequacy meaning they are able to provide a stable service."

He explained that the entry of Chatham Pacific was in response to a concern from government and while Tonga did have two airlines the Peau Vava'u was troubled by the riots of 16/11 and could not continue to operate.

"We were left with one, the Airlines Tonga, but even on its own it was not able to, first of all, cater for the traffic, and secondly, it was not able to guarantee to us the service at the level that we required", he said.

"Hence we looked at several options of different carriers but we also asked Chatham if they would consider operating the service considering they have a history here having been chartered by the Peau Vava'u and Airlines Tonga and they agreed," said Paul.

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