Tonga’s sole carrier, Lulutai Airlines, is canceling flights after the small South Pacific nation recorded its first-ever case of COVID-19. A missionary returning from New Zealand on an Air New Zealand flight inadvertently imported the virus into Tonga last week.
Tonga’s Lulutai Airlines is canceling flights after the first case of COVID-19 in the country. Photo: Lulutai Airlines
Flights canceled as Tonga goes into lockdown
The country of 106,000 people went into a seven-day lockdown at midnight on Monday, with police and military now enforcing an overnight curfew. On Monday morning, Lulutai Airlines flights from Tonagtapu to Vava’u were temporarily suspended after the Governor of Vava’u, Lord Fakatulolo, said the borders of the Vava’u Island Group would close to all aircraft and shipping.
Tonga comprises roughly 170 islands, of which 36 are inhabited, including the Tongatapu Group in the south, the Haʿapai Group in the center, and the Vavaʿu Group in the north.
Tongan Government-owned Lulutai Airlines provides much-needed connectivity between the islands. The tiny airline has a fleet of just two planes – a 25-year-old Saab 340 (A3-PUA) and a 12 seater Y12 that formerly flew for now-defunct Real Tonga Airlines.
According to Tonga Airports Limited, Lulutai Airlines is scheduled to operate six flights around Tonga on Tuesday, including the now-canceled return service between Tongatapu and Vava’u. Other flights listed on Tuesday include return flights between Tongatapu and Ha’apai and Tongatapu and ‘Eua.
The former Real Tonga Air markings are clearly visible under the new Lulutai Airlines livery. Photo: Lulutai Airlines
Lulutai Airlines helps fill the Real Tonga Air void
Lulutai Airlines only began flying in September 2020. This followed the collapse of Real Tonga Air earlier that year, leaving Tonga without a domestic air service. Real Tonga had struggled to be financially viable since its inception in 2013. COVID-19 exacerbated that situation, and a US$500,000 bill after a bird strike incident in Vava’u in May 2020 involving the Saab 340 sent the airline over the edge.
Soon after, the Saab’s owner, Montrose Global, canceled the lease and transferred the plane to Lulutai Airlines on a dry lease. The Tongan Government owns the Y12 plane after China gifted it.
Real Tonga Air was privately owned but received ongoing support from the Tongan Government. But the rolling problems at Real Tonga made it a no-brainer for the Government to turn off the financial tap and start their own airline.
Lulutai Airlines now connects Tonga’s primary airport at Tongatapu (near the capital Nukuʻalofa) with Vava’u, Ha’apai, Niuafo’ou, and Niuatoputapu.
Lulutai’s home base at Tonga’s Fuaʻamotu International Airport. Photo: David Broad via Wikimedia Commons
COVID curtails international flights into Tonga
Meanwhile, COVID-19 has seen what few international air services Tonga usually gets seriously curtailed. Real Tonga offered flights between Nukuʻalofa and Nadi, but they ended with the demise of the airline. Virgin Australia used to fly in, but they’ve axed their flying into the South Pacific.
A third airline, Fiji Airways, normally flies to Nukuʻalofa, but they too have suspended most of their international flying. That leaves Air New Zealand, usually the biggest carrier into the country. They’ve maintained ad hoc repatriation and supply flights into Nukuʻalofa, with the next flight slated for Thursday, November 5.
But Air New Zealand might be a little on the nose in Tonga today. The unlucky missionary arrived at Tonga’s Fuaʻamotu International Airport on an Air New Zealand flight from Christchurch on October 27. Along with the 214 other passengers on the flight, he was tested on day two of his post-arrival quarantine spell and returned a positive result.
On the plane were Tonga’s Olympic team members who’d been stranded in Christchurch since the games wrapped up in early August. Along with unfortunate airport workers dragged into the mix, they are among the approximately 300 people now cooling their heels in quarantine.
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