Plane ban an overcorrection

After last year’s devastating epidemic, the Government said it was not taking any chances with the coronavirus when it suddenly and drastically reduced incoming flights to Samoa this week. 

The safety of our citizens, of course, must always be our main concern. But policies protecting the public health should be a product of the same considered and careful analysis as any other public policy.

But the manner in which this week’s sudden decision to cut flights and ban large planes from arriving in Samoa has the whiff of policy being made on the run. Perhaps in the wake of the measles epidemic, the pendulum has swung too far from under to over cautious. 

But the decision also raises questions about whether public health concerns were in fact foremost in the minds of policymakers.  

A Government announcement late on Wednesday night that it would no longer accept any aircraft except the Boeing A320 or the Boeing 737-800 carries huge impacts for Samoans overseas, tourism and the international freight on which we rely.

A question follows: to what degree were the impacts of this sudden decree taken into consideration?

Tourism is the lifeblood of the Samoan economy. It was its sustaining force last year and is facing a radical hit this year. 

We already have medical checkups and a quarantine facility at our airport. If we trust these measures, then what is the logic of undercutting this country’s most successful and fastest-growing export industry when it is already doing it tough. 

Air New Zealand, one of the main carriers Samoans rely on for travel and is of huge benefit to our tourism sector is the immediate loser. 

Of the last six flights into Apia from Air New Zealand into Apia the larger, now-banned 787-900 was used approximately half the time. Under the new prohibition that aircraft may no longer be used until further notice. 

But quizzically another aircraft in the Air New Zealand fleet., the A-320, is even smaller than the other prohibited planes and is also banned. How does banning a smaller aircraft, too, logically follow the Government’s ostensible reason for banning larger plans is that they have an increased virus transmission risk?

This kind of drastic decision making might be understandable for a Government that finds itself in the midst of a crisis it is trying to contain.

But we are not yet in such a situation.

Imposing an edict with next to no notice on an airline carrier integral to Samoa’s economy and tourism industry, is going to make other airlines - and indeed business in general - think twice about doing business in Samoa in future.

Businesses rely on certainty. 

We believe the Government should have consulted with Air New Zealand before bringing in its ban and phased in its restrictions rather than forcing Air New Zealand to undertake what was doubtlessly a costly logistical exercise to rearrange its fleet on the hop. 

This week’s decision reminds of the Cabinet’s sudden announcement late last month that it intended to close the Apia-Nadi route. The Prime Minister, Tuilaepa Dr. Sailele Malielegaoi, said was designed to bring Fiji Airways to the negotiating table. 

Shock announcements and smashmouth negotiating tactics of this sort may well grab attention but when it comes to attracting international investment in Samoa, we believe it does so for all the wrong reasons. 

Few companies are likely to invest in a country where Government policy can seemingly change the operation of an industry on a whim. 

The ban also carries a human cost. There are hundreds of Samoan nationals for whom it seems inevitable that their travel plans will be disrupted. 

Yesterday’s flight from Auckland into Apia on the large 787-900 (which is now subject to the ban) had barely one spare seat.

Now that the airline will be forced to employ a blanket ban on using its larger planes it is inevitable that tickets will have to be cancelled; mandatory doctors’ certificates will need to be reissued; and plans made months ago will be disrupted. 

Then there is the potential massive impact that a one-size-fits-all ban will have on the importation of goods into Samoa via cargo planes. 

Almost all essential goods arrive in Samoa by air or sea. And we’ve already seen the first cargo ship rejected from docking in Samoan ports for quarantine reasons. 

As global supply chains - mostly reliant on the flow of materials from China - are disrupted by the virus and countries with much larger consumer economies, such as Australia, are dealing with empty supermarket shelves sparked by panic buying, we have to ask if we are prepared for the impact on supplies.

If the Government is certain that the flow of inbound essentials won’t be affected then we believe they should reveal their backup plans.

The former General Manager of the previous national carrier, Polynesian Airways, Papalii Grant Percival said:

“I don’t think there’s any planning on this. What is the intention of the Government?,” he said. 

Papalii may be right.

But there may also be some method to this seeming madness. 

We know that the national carrier is in the financial doldrums: it lost a total of $20 million tala last year. 

And all these restrictions just happen to have strengthened the hand of Samoa Airways at the expense of its rivals.

Air New Zealand will lose an estimated 500 incoming passenger seats a week. Samoa Airways will lose none. 

Taking precautions in the name of public health is always a creditable thing for any Government to do. 

But it’s hard to escape the impression that this alone is the motivation behind the policy. 

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