Not just Bauerfield: dangers in many Pacific airports, says international aviation body

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By Michael Field

An aviation snafu which has seen South Pacific airlines refuse to land at Vanuatu’s main international airport points to serious safety issues across the region, World Bank documents show.

Tonga’s Fuaʻamotu International Airport looks dangerously close to suffering the same fate as Vanuatu’s Bauerfield Airport.

The bank warns international airlines risk legal problems if they knowingly fly into sub-standard airports and most South Pacific airports are in that category.

In a little noticed report, the bank says international airline operators servicing Pacific Island countries were “incurring considerable risk” due to the “poor safety and security situation” (the full paragraph at the bottom).

A separate report by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) highlights the poor standards of Pacific airfields.

Vanuatu’s well publicised problems, spelt out here in a Nikkei Asia Report piece, are a sign of wider regional problems.

Last April the World Bank agreed to provide a US$59.5m loan to improve aviation in Vanuatu. Its these agreements that point to wider problems.

A chapter on “strategic context” in the agreement says international airline operators servicing Pacific Island countries were “incurring considerable risk” due to the “poor safety and security situation”.

Airlines, in the event of an accident, “may be found negligent for operating international flights to/from airports with significant safety and security issues.”

The bank, when asked to be specific about other problems, pointed to the ongoing audits run by the ICAO.

That ICAO data showed airports in the Marshall Islands, Nauru, Palau, Solomon Islands and Tonga, which is serviced by Air New Zealand, well below the low audit standard at Vila’s airport. Fiji was below the global average for airports and only Samoa was above it.

Other island nations have yet to be audited.

The report pointed to Kiribati where jet operations are severely limited on the capital atoll of Tarawa. Major game fishing operations had been based on Christmas Atoll but when the runaway at Cassidy Airport broke down in 2008, weekly jet services from Honolulu ended.

The atoll’s tourism industry “collapsed overnight creating a massive reduction in income to the island”.

The runway was restored by 2012, thanks to New Zealand aid, but the tourism industry has yet to recover.

The World Bank says most Pacific Island countries had inadequate airport and freight handling facilities. Airfield lighting and navigation systems date backed to the 1960-70s.

Runways were too short and pavements lacked strength.

“The danger of international long distance flights ceasing due to the state of physical infrastructure or shortcomings in the policy and regulatory environment is very real….”

The World Bank report had extensive material on Vanuatu, saying Bauerfield had a “highly compromised infrastructure” and even in April last year the bank was warning of a possible interruption to jet operations.

The key paragraph in the World Bank report:

“10. Due to the poor safety and security situation, international airline operators servicing the PIC markets are incurring considerable risk, and in the event of an accident may be found negligent for operating international flights to/from airports with significant safety and security issues. In some cases, flights have been suspended causing significant economic losses and less easily quantifiable political and social costs5 . Failure to address these issues will likely lead to further instances of curtailment or cessation of international aircraft operations, particularly those using jets, severely impacting the affected countries. The danger of international long distance flights ceasing due to the state of physical infrastructure or shortcomings in the policy and regulatory environment is very real for several PIC airports in the near to medium term.”


 

Michael J. Field is a New Zealand journalist and writer who has covered the South Pacific since the early ’70s. His latest book is The Catch, published by Awa Press, which exposes slavery and forced labour in the international fishing industry. This post first appeared on Michael J. Field’s blog.