TONGA BRISTLES AT AIRLINE THREAT

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Air New Zealand demands financial support

By Pesi Fonua

NUKUALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Nov. 27, 2008) – Tonga is "not happy" with Air New Zealand threatening to cut its weekly flight connecting Tonga to the USA next year, if Tonga will not pay millions in subsidies to the international carrier, Tonga's Prime Minister Hon. Dr Feleti Sevele told Matangi Tonga Online yesterday afternoon.

Dr Sevele said that Air New Zealand had approached Tonga in August looking for a subsidy for its weekly services through Tonga, Samoa, and the Cook Islands to Los Angeles and back.

He said that the government had formed a commission to assess the subsidy request and to look at the Air New Zealand service to Tonga.

"Firstly, to see if the subsidy that has been requested by Air New Zealand can be justified.

"The load factor that has been given to Cabinet is about 76%. That is quite high and we wondered why are they asking for a subsidy and why they are saying there are losses," he said.

"Secondly, the implications of the service for Tonga in terms of our people travelling to and from the United States, and for people in the USA coming here.

"And thirdly, what are the implications if the flights will be discontinued in terms of our tourism industry? Those are the issues that are being analysed at the moment and our understanding with Samoa is that together we will arrive at a common stance in our negotiation with Air New Zealand."

Dr Feleti Sevele said there would be a meeting in Auckland soon, "for us and Samoa to get our thoughts together on what we will be taking to the negotiating table when we meet with Air New Zealand."

He said that he was not aware of any subsidies for the airline during his time as Prime Minister.

Dr Sevele said he expected the number of Tonga-USA passengers flying out of Tonga to increase markedly in 2009 because the US Embassy will set up a visa office in Tonga. This means that Tongans will no longer have to fly to Fiji for their visas and therefore fewer will be flying to the USA from Nadi.

Tonga is currently served regularly by three international airlines Air New Zealand, Air Pacific and Pacific Blue, with Air New Zealand providing the most flights on the New Zealand-Tonga route, and onward flights to Apia and Los Angeles.

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