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'Unsafe' Chinese airplane hurting Tonga tourism

By Chuck Thompson, CNN
updated 4:44 AM EDT, Thu September 19, 2013
File photo of MA60 turboprop manufactured by China's AVIC Xi'an Aircraft Industry Company.
File photo of MA60 turboprop manufactured by China's AVIC Xi'an Aircraft Industry Company.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Australian passenger shaken by "anxious" flight on Chinese-made MA60 aircraft in Tonga
  • Various reports say the MA60's poor reputation is hurting tourism in Tonga
  • Real Tonga airline says its aircraft are safe
  • In June, an MA60 crash-landed in Indonesia, another skidded off runway in Myanmar

(CNN) -- Would you feel comfortable flying in a plane with the exit sign missing from above its door?

Along with dripping water appearing in the cabin shortly after takeoff, a missing exit sign was one of the details that rattled Australian passenger Lisa Kingsberry on a flight from Fiji to Vava'u in Tonga operated by Real Tonga airlines this week.

The flight had originally been delayed two days due a sick pilot and weather conditions.

"I've never been on such an anxious flight," Kingsberry told Radio Australia. "Everyone was talking about the safety issues."

The story has made headlines in Australia, with reports suggesting that the poor safety record and reputation of the aircraft used by Real Tonga -- a Chinese-manufactured MA60 aircraft -- is "crippling" tourism in Tonga.

"Earlier this year, the New Zealand Government suspended millions of dollars in tourism aid to Tonga and warned travelers of safety concerns over the plane," reported Australia Network News. "New Zealand says the MA60 plane has been involved in a significant number of accidents in the past few years and is not certified to fly in New Zealand, Australia, Europe and the United States."

No plans to ground plane

But Real Tonga tells CNN it has no plans to suspend operations of its brand new MA60 -- manufactured by China's AVIC Xi'an Aircraft Industry Company -- which the government of Tonga received as a gift from China earlier this year.

Configured to seat 42 passengers, the aircraft -- one of three operated by the airline and the only MA60 in its fleet -- made its maiden flight for the airline on August 10.

"There are no plans to ground it," said Real Tonga commercial manager Tele Faletau. "We have no grounds on which we need to ground it."

MA60s have been involved in at least 11 mishaps since 2009.

On June 10 of this year, an MA60 crash-landed at an airport in Indonesia, injuring two passengers; on the same day, an MA60 skidded off a runway in Myanmar, with no injuries reported.

Though he confirmed that the MA60 flap has negatively affected Tonga's tourism industry and the airline itself, Faletau downplayed the worries.

"There were no reports (of problems) through our official maintenance on that flight," Faletau told CNN.

Faletau explained that the exit sign in question is a detachable, foam piece that fits above the door of the aircraft.

"Maybe some passenger inadvertently knocked it off and it wasn't reattached," Faletau said. "Perhaps that's how the incident happened."

Faletau said the water in the cabin was likely condensation from the aircraft's air conditioning system, caused in part by Tonga's intense humidity.

He also defended safety certification processes required by various world aviation governing bodies, the Chinese aviation industry and Real Tonga.

Tonga needs plane

Real Tonga began operations in March 2013.

It's the latest in a string of airlines that have attempted to keep Tonga flying.

"The domestic air infrastructure has been a problem in Tonga for a number of years," Faletau said. "We're a small nation, with only about 100,000 population.

"It's difficult to mount a sustainable airline operation for this market. The gift of the MA60 from the People's Republic of China to our government represents stability for Tonga's air infrastructure for the future."

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