Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi is standing by his government’s decision to reject an application by Virgin Australia to continue flights from Auckland to Faleolo.
Speaking to the Samoa Observer yesterday, Tuilaepa said his government would not yield to threats made by officials within the Australian government.
The Prime Minister blasted the airline for selling tickets when they do not have a license to operate after 5 December 2017.
Tuilaepa called them “liars” and “stupid” for their actions.
“The license will expire when the joint venture expires,” he reiterated. The joint venture between the government, Virgin Australia and the Grey Investment Group expires on 5 December 2017.
“We had written to them informing them that what they are doing is illegal, and there was no response,” Tuilaepa said.
“However, the airline was hiding behind officials of a ministry with the Australian Government who came here and made threats, noting that we (Samoa Airways) are flying to Australia as well."
“And that is why we have told them they can fly directly from Australia to Samoa and we will do the same."
“They (Virgin Australia) don’t want that."
“They want to fly to New Zealand then to Samoa, but see we don’t want that, we want them to fly directly from Australia to Samoa."
“We (Samoa Airways) will be serving the New Zealand route and they can focus on the Australia route to Samoa.”
He pointed out the negotiations with the Virgin Australia revealed that they did not want to continue the joint venture with their aircraft.
“They proposed for us to have a joint venture with their smaller plane, called Tiger Air."
“A proposal the government will not entertain nor accept. They (Tiger Airways) have been rejected by the Australian government and furthermore they don’t have a license to operate in Samoa,” he said.
According to the Prime Minister, Virgin Australia cannot come to Samoa as they do not accept the conditions that the airfares must be lowered.
“From the beginning they have already told us that there are not that many passengers, hence the limited flights in and out of Samoa,” Tuilaepa said.
“We have requested to increase their flights, but they were adamant there were not that many passengers to justify the additional flights."
“And so we had to make changes on our own, given that not only the flights were limited, but the airfares were expensive and it had a huge impact on us."
“They kept on saying that there were no passengers to justify the additional flights."
“Ironically, as soon as we announced our new airline, they have added more flights, saying they have additional passengers."
“What a bunch of lies,” said Tuilaepa.
The Prime Minister said the move by Virgin Australia to sell tickets after the expiration date of the venture was illegal.
He reiterated “they don’t have a license yet they kept on selling their tickets, which is such a stupid thing to do."
“The only license that allows them to fly to Samoa is through the joint venture license, that is what the fuss is all about.”
“The door is always open for Virgin Australia to obtain a license to operate directly from Australia to Samoa and back.”
Tuilaepa also pointed out to those who have already purchased, tickets, can however, still fly to Samoa using Fiji Airways.
This is part of our memorandum of understanding with Fiji Airways. The Prime Minister assured they will offer assistance to all passengers that are currently booked on Virgin flights from Auckland to Apia.
Last night, the government issued the following press statement about the issue. It is printed below verbatim:
Virgin Air Service Licence revoked
Virgin Australia has made press statements regarding the decision of the Samoan Government to decline an Auckland - Apia Air Service under the operating Licences sought by Virgin Australia International (V.A.I). (License)
This decision should not have come as a surprise to VAI, as the previous License was granted on the basis of the joint venture with the Government. That arrangement comes to an end on 13th November 2017.
Further our government officials have previously made efforts to notify Virgin that they should stop selling Auckland – Apia tickets beyond the 13th November date, without the proper approvals.
To date, our government has received no direct response from Virgin to those communications. The efforts to contact Virgin included offers to discuss the License with Virgin officials. This offer has not been taken up to date.
Instead Samoa was approached by the Australian Government officials where it became necessary to make the decision clear to them. This decision emphasised that VAI would be approved to operate scheduled services from points in Australia to Apia and return but with the Auckland to Apia and return services not approved. The necessary approvals were issued to VAI over the past few days.
The hope is that this direct link between Australia and Samoa will be reciprocated when the Samoa Airways application is considered. Samoa Airways is working hard to comply with terms of that application to fly direct from Apia to Australia.
Confirmation of License Decision
The Government stands by the decision to decline the approval for Auckland and Apia Virgin flights.
It was made clear to Virgin that they are free under the License terms to fly direct from Australia to Samoa and return; but Auckland is no longer accessible.
The Government disagrees with the statement made, that this violates previous Air Service Agreements given that those did not remove Samoa’s sovereign rights to consider all applications made to Samoa, and the overall impact that it can have on our people, economy and country.
Further, the spirit of those agreements were to facilitate cooperation such as past code sharing with airlines like Qantas and Polynesian Airlines; not to allow for rippling economic damage to Samoa in favour of a Multinational Airline.
Samoa and Fiji Airways Offer to Help Passengers
The Government has reached out to both Samoa Airways and Fiji Airways, and is happy to confirm their willingness to offer to assist all passengers that are currently booked on Auckland to Apia, Virgin flights. For a simple migration fee from Virgin Australia, Samoa Airways is willing to assist the passengers affected.
Samoa Airways and Fiji Airways will not impose any fees, or extra costs to passengers seeking a transfer.
The Fiji Airways offer to assist, will include a transit stop-over in Nadi, but there are no plans to seek extra costs from passengers for that route. Rather it will be discussed between airlines.
Prime Minister Tuilaepa Lupesoliai Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi will also reach out to the Prime Minister of New Zealand and the Air New Zealand management, to ascertain if they are able to assist with taking on Virgin’s Auckland to Apia passengers.
With these airlines willing to assist, it will simply be a step from Virgin to transfer those customers holding tickets that were sold by Virgin without the prior proper license approval from Samoa, and further, to pay the migration fees or other arrangements offered by the airlines, before the ticketed date to allow the passenger to travel.
Government therefore calls on all passengers affected to seek assistance from Virgin to explore the avenues available, to transfer their travel to the alternative carriers that are willing to assist Samoa.
Government were not otherwise aware that Virgin would seek to add costs to those passengers when they revoked their approval as their tickets were said to be subject to direct refunds by the airline if they were not granted proper approval.
Important Background Points.
In May of this year, the Government gave notice to Virgin Australia that the 12 year joint venture was at an end as at 13th November 2017.
A key consideration for the decision was Virgin Australia own expressed admissions, that it could no longer afford the flights under the current joint venture, to Samoa.
Virgin then suggested to Samoa that it consider its subsidiary airline Tiger Airways to take over as Samoa’s National Carrier, under a renewed joint venture. This was not acceptable to the Government of Samoa.
After consideration of Tiger Airway’s and other factors of the proposal, the unanimous Cabinet decision was reached, that the joint venture would now discontinue.
Government then reviewed the gross estimated income of the joint venture over 12 years, made primarily from our people flying between Auckland and Apia, and came to the conclusion that it would take the step to re-start its own national airline’s international Jet Service.
To the Government’s surprise, given the previous statement that it was no longer affordable, Virgin Australia then announced that it did in fact want to remain in the Pacific and fly to and from Samoa.
Despite that, the decision to re-engage Jet Services in Samoa remains.
According to the Hon PM: “We are an island nation attempting to re-start jet services with only a one aircraft airline, and we are being treated in this manner by a multinational company in response. However, steps to start from this humble beginning and aim towards the future are on schedule and will continue.
We therefore have no choice but to stand against any efforts to destroy that goal for our people. We are grateful for the assistance of those airlines and governments willing to assist.”