Ti'avea Airport falls short; "makes no sense"

The Samoa Airport Authority is keeping mum about the $17 million Ti'avea Airport, as experts dismiss its use as an international runway saying it falls short of standards and "makes no sense".

Located on the northeastern side of Upolu, the Tiavea Airport is currently far from meeting international length standards required of an international runway, a Samoa Observer investigation can reveal. 

That’s despite the fact the Government has said it needs the airport to serve as a backup to Faleolo International Airport because of new research showing the latter will be rendered “unusable due to waves caused by cyclones.”

The Samoa Observer on Friday used a photographic drone to measure the length of the cleared runway at the site as only 956 metres. 

Even if previously promised plans in April to extend the airstrip a further 600 metres were realised, it will still fall well short of international standards for safe landings for large passenger jets including those owned by the national carrier, the Samoa Observer can reveal. 

American airport and railroad civil engineer expert, Augustine Ubaldi said Samoa Airways' recently announced leased Boeing 737-800 would not be able to land at the Ti'avea Airport at its current length. 

"Conservatively, the 737 would require a 9000 foot (2750 metre) runway. Rule of thumb:  hotter average temperature means more runway needed; higher elevation means more runway needed.  International is irrelevant. It is the aircraft in use that counts (weight/performance)," he said. 

"A runway of [1000 meters] (about 3200’) would not pass muster as a general aviation airport, much less an air carrier airport."

Questions sent to the Samoa Airport Authority (S.A.A.) Chief Executive Officer, Silimana'i Ueta Solomona, about whether there was enough further land to be cleared to make up the missing 2000 metres required to bring the airport to standard and how much that would cost were not responded to as of press time.

The need for an emergency landing airstrip had also raised concerns with the Faleolo Aiport's master plan. (Faleolo's runway is three kilometres). 

Speaking to the Samoa Observer, Associate Professor, Dr. Cheng-Lung (Richard) Wu from the School of Aviation of the University of New South Wales stressed that the goal is to design a pavement with durability.

"I'm not familiar with this 'emergency landing' purpose airport and it's concept. This has something to do with the 'master plan' of the current international airport, given the concern about the rising sea level in the future," he said.

"If this master plan doesn't include this 'phase out' scenario, then there should be a master plan for the 'emergency airport' because that's how airports are planned. 

"Airports are planned to grow over time and a master plan often spans across 20-30 years of development."

In April this year, Ti’avea was declared to be Samoa’s alternative international airport after a study found that Faleolo International Airport would be left unusable due to waves caused by cyclones.

“The extension of Tiavea came about after initial findings of a report being prepared by a research team from Japan stated an elevated risk of Faleolo being inundated from wave action during cyclones due to its proximity to the sea," Silimana’i said in April.

“It is the ideal time that the overall airport planning considers an extension to ensure that an alternate is available for continuity of air operations.”

But the former General Manager of Polynesian Airlines, Papalii Grant Percival has disputed that report, noting that Faleolo Airport is about 60 feet above sea level: "How many years would it take [for the sea level] to get to 50 feet? Centuries."

He questioned the Government’s rationale to build an alternative airport only 62 kilometres from Faleolo Airport, which is a roughly 15 minute flight time.

"There's no such thing as an emergency airport because you've got Tonga which is ten minutes away and Faleolo which is 15 minutes away, so why would you go there as an emergency?" Papalii said.

"[It is] very unusual. There's no such thing as an emergency airport [because] an emergency airport has to be up to standard. There are two types of emergencies, one, aircraft emergency, two, weather emergency."

Ti'avea Airport lacks many features required for it to be called an alternative international airport, said Papali'i.

 "You would never ever land at an unmanned, unequipped airport with some lighting assistance and some guiding lighting system as well," he said.

"There is so much missing; that is a bit of land that they made into a super roadway. So the relevance is, why are you spending $17 million on something that can't do anything?

"Has it got customs, has it got immigration, has it got a terminal, has it got a parking area, has it got fueling facilities? These are all things that you need at an airport [...] including the aviation navigation services and there are no aviation services planned.

"It's not equipped to take aeroplanes. It's a bit of land that's been prepared, like putting a road to nowhere. It's technically feasible, [but] is it viable? No. Why are we building a white elephant?"

Former pilot, Phil Meredith shared similar sentiments saying Tiavea Airport saying the project must be for political gain.

"Put simply the airport needs to be as long as Faleolo if they intend to put jet aircraft in there," he wrote in an email to this newspaper.

"Also there are no approach aids for instrument flight, no control tower, no rescue crash fire, no jet fuel and no customs or immigration there. Basically, the Tiavea airfield makes absolutely no sense to me.

"It must all be for the political gain of a selected few."

The airport is already running more than $3 million over budget after the Government has already spent $17 million on its construction. 

Earlier this year, an additional $190,000 was spent on expanding the runway to at least 1,500m in length with adequate available space for required international safety standards, Airport Chief said in April.

Although according to experts, the cost of the runway seems "very low"

"This is just a runway, not an airport and it is a cheap runway. Not suitable for international flights," added Papali'i.

"We do not know what aircraft it is designed for. We actually for a film sequence approved the Islander aircraft, a 10 seater to land on the road to Aleipata alongside the dam. It was no problem. 

"However, for international air transport you need to design to a proper standard and what they have is just a way of spending money."

Aldan Civil Engineering Company Ltd was awarded the $3.57 million to clear the area for the Ti’avea Airport back in 2018.  

The company is owned by the son of Associate Minister Peseta Vaifou Tevaga, Leiataua Danny Tevaga.

The decision was approved by the Cabinet and Peseta has previously said: “I am not involved in the project of this company,” he said.

According to Airport C.E.O., the expansion of the runway at a cost of $190,000 is extra to a $3.57 million contract for land clearing at the site.  

The project's initial budget was composed of $10 million for construction and $4 million in compensation for locals who had to lose their land to make way for the airport’s construction. 

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