AUSTRALIA, NEW ZEALAND FUND TONGA FLIGHTS

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Temporary measure moves stranded students

NUKU΄ALOFA, Tonga (Matangi Tonga, Feb. 4, 2010) - CHARTER flights to get stranded students and teachers from Tonga's outer islands back to school, are being funded by the Australian and New Zealand governments after Tonga's ferry services have collapsed.

After the sinking of the Princess Ashika six months ago, and then the halting of the MV Pulupaki ferry after it was declared to be unseaworthy late last month is causing frustration and anger among people in Tonga's northern groups of islands, who are now left without a ferry service.

The people of the remote Niuafo'ou and Niuatoputapu islands, as well as the Vava'u and Ha'apai groups have lost their lifeline - they have no ferry to ship their produce to the main markets in Tongatapu and they cannot ship in foodstuffs and other items they need. Students and teachers have been unable to return to school on Tongatapu and vice versa.

Passengers are now relying on a domestic air service but the airfares are beyond what ordinary folks can afford.

To ease the burden, the New Zealand and Australian governments have offered to pay for the airfares of students to fly back to school in Tongatapu from Vava'u and Ha'apai.

'Akosita Taumoepeau of the Ministry of Transport, who is coordinating the initiative, said on February 2 that from January 23 to 27, the Australian Government chartered daily flights from Ha'apai and Vava'u to Nuku'alofa bringing stranded students, accompanied by one parent if needed. At the same time, there were some students who returned north from Tongatapu.

'Akosita said that the chartered flights operated by Chatham Pacific for an undisclosed amount paid by the Australian government, had up to 49 seats and every flight was full.

The students chartered flights program will continue with the remaining students, and the New Zealand Government will charter the aircraft, starting tomorrow, February 4.

'Akosita said that according to their officials in the outer islands there are 265 on their waiting list in Ha'apai and 320 people in Vava'u. These figures included students and teachers from Tonga's Institute of Education.

Meanwhile, the New Zealand, Australia and the Tonga governments are still looking for an interim ferry service until the expected arrival of a new Olovaha [Motor Vessel] late next year.

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