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‘Hopeful’ of airport repairs

Tuesday 2 February 2016 | Published in Regional

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PORT VILA – There are hopes that Vanuatu’s elected representatives can put politics aside and sign off on an urgent upgrade of the country’s main international airport runway.

This follows a decision by Air New Zealand, Qantas and Virgin Australia to suspend flights to Vanuatu, due to concerns over the safety of the runway at Port Vila’s Bauerfield airport.

The timing of the decision could hardly have been worse, coming in the middle of Vanuatu’s snap election almost two weeks ago, Radio New Zealand’s Dateline Pacific reported.

But a 2015 World Bank offer of an almost US$60 million loan to Vanuatu to upgrade the runway, which was earlier brushed aside by the Sato Kilman-led government, is still on the table.

The World Bank’s country director for the Pacific is Franz Drees-Gross.

He said: “We’ve received a letter from the Sato Kilman government. Its current caretaker role, inviting the World Bank to field a team as soon as possible given the situation in Port Vila. We’re doing that, we’re sending a team on February 8.”

The deterioration of the Bauerfield runway has been known for years and it was the country’s unstable politics which got in the way of a solution.

The former Joe Natuman-led government was readying to approve the World Bank deal but was toppled by the Kilman administration.

Before that, the Moana Carcasses-led government had signed a controversial US$350 million with a Singapore-based tobbaco company for a whole new airport in Port Vila.

Now Carcasses and 13 other MPs from the Kilman government are in prison for bribery charges, and the country is set for a fourth change of prime minister in three years.

Despite the political confusion, Franz Drees-Gross says he hopes there can be agreement on a way forward.

“There have been several attempts over the past seven or eight years to make some smaller repairs, very much ad hoc repairs that never amounted to a comprehensive rehabilitation.

“I think there’s greater agreement on what needs to be done, which is an emergency rehabilitation now.”

The decision by the major airlines has been a big blow for Vanuatu’s all important tourism industry as it recovers from the devastation of Cyclone Pam last year.

The chairman of the Vanuatu Hotel Resorts and Accommodation, Bryan Death says emergency repairs are expected to take about a month to be carried out.

“A bit of a light at the end of the tunnel but we would like that tunnel to be a lot shorter obviously and that’s not going to be that possible, because it’s just going to take time to mobilise and put that product and machinery on a vessel from New Zealand and get it over here. But the good news is that can happen probably within a week.”

Meanwhile, Robert McLellan of the Pacific Aviation Safety Office says that to maintain its certification, Airports Vanuatu will need to operate under much closer surveillance by the Civil Aviation Authority.

- PNC sources