Skip to main content

'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."

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 7:17 AM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
This aging cargo work whale makes more than 60 flights each week, carrying parts for all of the Airbus programs.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
From a three-room apartment to a Michelin-starred meal, many airlines are offering services you won't even get in some top hotels.
updated 10:46 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Details from an Airbus patent illustrating a virtual reality headset for air passengers.
Airbus patent proposes using special headsets to control in-flight sights, sounds and smells.
updated 3:01 AM EDT, Fri September 12, 2014
Bear on the tail and heart on the underside -- it's been a big week for makeovers in the world of aviation.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014
The only two surviving pilots of the wartime China National Aviation Corp celebrate after an historic Douglas C-47 flight.
updated 8:36 AM EDT, Fri September 5, 2014
Just because you can use your phone on the plane, it doesn't mean you have to.
updated 8:42 PM EDT, Fri September 5, 2014
You've been up since 3 a.m.
updated 11:14 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Airlines and airports are going high-tech to reduce your time in line.
updated 9:15 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Ever wondered what it takes to get that movie to your inflight screen? This special report details who, what and how much it takes to bring you the best in IFE (we'll explain).
updated 2:35 PM EDT, Wed July 30, 2014
Takeoff on one of Airbus' new A350WXB test planes is a strangely quiet experience.
updated 5:06 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Cars, craft beer, yetis? Since when did in-flight purchases get so strange?
updated 10:26 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
CNN takes a look at the new car-plane hybrid that brings affordable recreational air travel to the masses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT