Chinese plane improving air travel in Tonga

Updated: 2014-07-07 07:08

By Zhao Lei (China Daily)

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Frequent traveler: Aircraft 'designed to be safe, rugged and practical'

As an endorsement of confidence and support, King Tupou VI of Tonga arranged a flight show with a Chinese-made MA-60 turboprop during his birthday celebration on Saturday.

When the aircraft swayed its wings in salute to the king and other onlookers, Tupou VI waved at the plane, which has been operating in the South Pacific archipelago nation for a year.

Samiu Vaipulu, deputy prime minister of Tonga, and Huang Huaguang, Chinese ambassador to Tonga, were onboard the MA-60 during the show above the scenic island of Vava'u.

Before the show on Saturday, the Chinese plane had made 654 flights in the nation without a single accident.

The use of the plane can be seen as a response to New Zealand's punitive measures against Tonga, including the suspension of tourism aid to the county, and a travel warning pertaining to the MA-60.

The row started when the Tongan government accepted the MA-60 as a gift from China in 2012. Chathams Pacific, a privately owned New Zealand airline that monopolized air services in Tonga for five years, withdrew from the country in March 2013, citing "unfair treatment" and "operational difficulties".

Wellington then advised New Zealanders not to fly on the MA-60 while in Tonga, citing safety concerns over the Chinese aircraft. New Zealand travelers have also found it is difficult to buy insurance if they want to make a trip to Tonga.

Zhang Guangjian, executive vice-president of AVIC International Holding Corp, which is authorized by the Chinese government to export civilian aircraft, told China Daily that the MA-60 is reliable and safe.

"The plane is made based on advanced technologies and global supply of components. Its engines are made by Pratt & Whitney Canada and avionic systems by Honeywell," he said. "Its has been certified by the Chinese civil aviation authority, whose airworthiness standards are comparable to those of the US Federal Aviation Administration."

By the end of last year, more than 80 MA-60s had been delivered to buyers from 16 nations in Asia, South America and Africa, according to the company.

"Our clients told us they are satisfied with the aircraft because of its good operational performance and convenient maintenance," Zhang said.

The introduction of MA-60 and the founding of Real Tonga, the nation's first airline, have made air travel more affordable for Tongans, Zhang added, noting a flight from Tongatapu to Vava'u now costs at most $170, or $50 less than flights operated by Chathams Pacific.

Shane Walker, owner of Tonga Beach Resort and a Tonga Tourism Authority board member, told Radio Australia that he researched the MA-60's safety issues and found that "there seems to be no foundation to the claims" that the plane is unsafe.

"As time goes by and I research this more and more, I find that there is no documented evidence to find fault with the aircraft whatsoever," Walker said.

According to the Tongan aviation authority, Chathams Pacific's aircraft reported eight malfunctions from February 2010 to April 2011. Its aircraft are on average nearly 48 years old - the oldest is 67 years.

"I have to admit that I did have some preconceptions about the MA-60 and was very impressed to have these corrected when I saw how modern and spacious the cabin was," Peter White, a frequent traveler from New Zealand, was quoted as saying by the Tonga Daily News. "It is designed to be safe, rugged and practical."

He added: "If I had the choice of flying on a 40-some-year-old Convair or Metro or a brand new MA60, give me the latter any day."

Chinese plane improving air travel in Tonga

Pilots pose before the flight of a Chinese-made MA-60 turboprop arranged by Tongan King Tupou VI during his birthday celebration on Saturday. Provided to China Daily