Tokelau helicopter plans part of a bigger picture

April 21, 2017

Tokelau helicopter plans part of a bigger picture

Foreign Minister Murray McCully has personally advocated for air services to Tokelau, despite expressing outrage at the recent purchase of helicopters. Photo: Michał Józefaciuk

Plans by Tokelau to supplement its sea service with an air service have been heavily criticised, but some benefits have since emerged.

The island’s purchase of helicopters, announced in February, included plans to travel via Swains Island – contradicting earlier reports alleging the aircraft were ill-suited for the job.

Earlier reports also revealed New Zealand officials supported plans for air services to Tokelau in the lead-up to the heavily criticised investment and documents from Tokelau’s General Fono show this was enacted.

When it originally emerged that Tokelau had bought two helicopters to circumvent the 24-hour boat trip from Samoa, New Zealand’s Foreign Affairs Minister Murray McCully described the expenditure as “extravagances”.

At the time, NZ Helicopter Association chairperson Peter Turnbull raised doubts as to whether the aircraft would be able to make the almost 500km trip from Samoa to Tokelau.

The incident prompted New Zealand’s administrator to the territory, David Nicholson, to propose veto powers on purchases over $500,000 NZD by Tokelau’s government.

However, inquiries have revealed plans to use the remote US-administered Swains Island as a stopover point between Samoa and Tokelau, effectively splitting the direct flight in two.

Turnbull said both legs of the journey were “quite achievable” by the Bell 212 “Huey” helicopter Tokelau had bought.

American Samoa representative and owner of Swains, Su’a Alex Jennings, said he was approached in January by officials from Tokelau’s National Public Service based in Apia.

Su’a said he had later contacted the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and was told Swains could be utilised in emergencies and as a fuel stop for the helicopters.

He said he also briefed local leaders from the American Samoa government and further progress was only “pending a formal commitment” from Tokelau.

Following public outrage from Mr McCully and Ulu o Tokelau Siopili Perez, that commitment is unlikely, with the General Fono agreeing last month to sell the helicopters.

Under the National government, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade has pushed for air transport to Tokelau since 2010, when then-acting administrator Jonathan Kings said Mr McCully was “personally excited” about air services he viewed as a “sensible, workable and sustainable” solution.

A meeting in June last year between the previous Ulu, Afega Gaualofa, and Mr McCully saw the prospect of a regular air services between Tokelau and Samoa raised further.

Mr McCully said in a written statement at the time he supported the project and the use of Tokelau’s International Trust Fund towards it.

Air services were put forward as part of Tokelau’s proposed development initiatives the following month at the General Fono in Fakaofo.

This included plans for an interim air service to be “up and running soonest” until village airstrips on Tokelau’s atolls could be constructed.

Currently, the only means of transport to Tokelau is the Mataliki, a ship designed in London and built in Bangladesh at a cost of more than $12 million NZD, paid for by the New Zealand government.

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