By Jane Joshua and Jonas Cullwick in Port Vila
Virgin Australia, has temporarily suspended its flights to Vanuatu over runway safety concerns at Port Vila’s Bauerfield Airport.
Sources informed the Daily Post that there was “no response” from control tower at Bauerfield when a Virgin Airlines flight bound for Australia left the airport on Monday.
In other developments in the airport safety row, the National Bank of Vanuatu has revealed it is “happy to work” with the Vanuatu government to fund the immediate runway upgrade needs up to the value of US$1 million.
Virgin offers three weekly flights between Brisbane and Port Vila, but the Sydney Morning Herald reported:
“The carrier said after a further review of the runway on Wednesday, it had decided it would only operate one last return service between Brisbane and Port Vila on Saturday to return customers to their port of origin.”
Previously Air New Zealand had suspended its flights to Port Vila and Qantas suspended its code-sharing arrangement with Air Vanuatu over similar concerns.
These concerns may soon be eased as the National Bank of Vanuatu (NBV) has considered assisting the Vanuatu government.
Speaking exclusively with the Daily Post, an executive member of the NBV, Michael Fimeri, said the bank was happy to work with the Vanuatu government to fund the immediate needs of the runway, to resurface the runway up to a price of US$1 million, assuming it could work out satisfactory terms with the government.
“The loan has a zero percent interest, subject to the terms agreed with the government,” he said.
Asked how soon this could happen, Fimeri replied: “The funds are available as of [Saturday], subject to negotiations with the government.”
He added that he understood there was a quote to fix the runway from a local company, which would happen in a “short space of time”.
“We will fund the upgrade, subject to the government agreeing,” he said.
While negotiations were yet to happen, he said from a banking perspective, the country needed the runway.
“It is an interest free loan, subject to terms agreed by the government and NBV,” he said.
“The money is available. It needs to be funded immediately.”
Benefit for Vanuatu
When asked how NBV would benefit from the loan, he replied: “NBV will benefit from the fact that Vanuatu will benefit from it. It is an interest free loan.”
On Friday, Air Vanuatu issued the following statement but did not comment on the recent suspension of flights when asked to: ”Air Vanuatu senior management, captains and compliance officers have been holding daily meetings with Civil Aviation Authority of Vanuatu (CAAV) and Airports Vanuatu Limited (AVL) and remain satisfied the condition of the runway is safe to continue jet operations at present.
“Our flight captains have the final say should the extra safety measures in place, including daily mechanical ‘sweeping’ of the runway, not meet our standards.
“This week we have had one flight delayed due to the sweeping not meeting the approval of our operating captain. We will continue to demand daily sweeping and runway inspections and will not depart if our operating crew and compliance officers are not satisfied.
“Air Vanuatu operates under a safety first policy at all times and will continue to do so. Should conditions deteriorate before the planned upgrade of the runway commences, we will review services to Port Vila”.
Meanwhile, AVL are refusing to confirm or deny an incident that allegedly took place Monday. Sources informed the Daily Post that there was no response from control tower at Bauerfield when a Virgin Airlines flight bound for Australia left the airport.
It was reported to the Daily Post by a person listening to the relevant radio frequency that when the plane was ready to leave the airport the captain repeatedly attempted to contact the control tower to request clearance for departure, but there was no response.
After a prolonged silence, the plane took off without incident following communication by the captain with the pilots of other aircraft in the vicinity. One of them considered the incident more amusing than not, jokingly told the captain of the aircraft “Welcome to the Pacific!”
Sources confirmed the incident and said similar situations had occurred in the past, especially when there was only one person at the control tower and had to use the restroom.
One local pilot said such incidents often happened with local flights, but this was the first he had come across it with an international flight.
“There was really no drama only an inconvenience to the Boeing captain who after waiting for five minutes decided to take off. But if there was a major incident the captain would have filed an Incident Report, As it is, there was really no issue,” he added.
AVL’s management responded to a request from the Daily Post for a comment saying they had nothing to say on the matter as they were not aware of such an incident.
It is not known whether such an occurrence would have contributed to Virgin’s decision to suspend its service to Port Vila.
AVL also said they could not comment on reports that a manager, air traffic, Lindsay Taylor, who was said to have spent over 20 years in the control tower of Bauerfield Airport, was given only four days’ notice before having his services terminated recently.
When the Daily Post contacted AVL for a comment, it was told that management could not comment on the report. No reasons were given.
These situations could not have come at a worse time for Vanuatu and Bauerfield when the airport was in the spotlight over concerns about safety issues.
These longstanding concerns about the condition of the runway to safely handle Boeing 737 aircraft have led Air New Zealand to suspend its flights into Bauerfield.
Last weekend, the Director of Civil Aviation Authority of Vanuatu (CAAV), Joseph Niel, directed AVL to act on measures required by airline operators to ensure jet operations could continue safely at Bauerfield airport.
Air Vanuatu also said several extra precautions were now in place until permanent repair at the aerodrome begins.
The safety measures imposed by Air Vanuatu require daily “sweeping” of the runway plus regular inspections prior to and after take-off; new obstacle and runway surveys and 200m of runway to be marked at the end of runway 11 for urgent repair.
Jonas Cullwick, a former general manager of Vanuatu Broadcasting and Television Corporation (VBTC), is now a senior journalist with the Daily Post.