Expert calls for answers on Ti'avea Airport

An American expert in international airport regulations, Augustine Ubaldi, has called for more transparency on the Ti’avea Airport plans saying the Government’s "lack of clear answers upsets [his] engineer’s mind."

The comments from the expert come after the General Manager of the Samoa Airport Authority (S.A.A.), Silimana’i Ueta Solomona Jr., said that the $17 million Ti'avea Airport was “never designed” to service a Boeing 737-800 aircraft. 

The General Manager made the comments following a Samoa Observer investigation that found the current length of the runway is nearly three times short of the minimum length required to land the model of plane used by Samoa Airways. 

The investigation came after the Minister of Works, Transport and Infrastructure, Papali’i Niko Lee Hang, said that the airport was intended to be built to international standards following a study that found Faleolo International Airport was at risk of inundation from rising sea levels. 

Responding to questions about the legitimacy of the project being called an international airport, as well as a back-up to the Faleolo International Airport, Silimana’i said Ti’avea is a “Code 2C aerodrome” whereas Faleolo is a “Code 4E aerodrome” - two completely different airports. 

However, Mr. Ubaldi - a recognised expert witness in international airport regulations - has raised further questions about the usefulness of Ti’avea Airport considering the future of Faleolo Airport.

"[If] Faleolo will be rendered “unusable due to waves caused by cyclones”; Faleolo is code 4e and Ti’avea is 2C and Ti’avea was not intended for 737 – so where will the Faleolo 737s go when Faleolo is unusable?," asked Mr. Ubaldi.

"All this should be contained in a master plan [or] airport layout plan.  Essentially – one looks at the current airport infrastructure and traffic mix (amounts and types of aircraft).  Then it is projected 5, 10, [or] 20 years into the future and an evaluation is made as to what improvements to the infrastructure are needed to handle the traffic.

"If the existing site cannot handle it, then a new site is found and a master plan [...] is developed for that site."

The statement from the Authority was in response to a story titled “Ti'avea Airport falls short; makes no sense" published on the front page of the Weekend Observer.

The story revealed that the Tiavea Airport is currently far from meeting international length standards required of an international runway.

A Samoa Observer investigation used a photographic drone to measure the length of the cleared runway at the site as only 965 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 investigation found.

But the General Manager of the S.A.A. dismissed the concerns, saying Ti’avea was not being built to replace Faleolo.

Silimana'i also dismissed criticism that the new airport lacked necessary equipment to guide passenger aircraft in for landing, arguing that navigation requirements had moved on from the old days. Silimana'i said satellite-based technology replacing the need for conventional navigation aids.

But Mr. Ubaldi said the cited approaches are "non-precision approaches" that do not account for weather conditions that might prevent landing.

"An international airport would have precision approaches and ground based augmentation system is the only satellite precision system I know of," he said.

"The problem is that it requires local reference receivers located around the airport sending data to a central location at the airport to provide real-time differential correction of the [global positioning] signal.  In other words, ground-based equipment is needed."

Last week, an independent Member of Parliament and engineer, Olo Fiti Vaai, said the Government never had a plan for the Ti'avea Airport - which has been reflected in the contradictory official reasons given for its existence. 

The Government had previously said Ti’avea Airport would be exclusively used in case of emergency landings.  

However, experts said 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 runway 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. "

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

With an additional $190,000 on expanding the runway to ensure safety standards are met and so it can function as an alternative airport. 

In January, Minister Papali’i revealed the Government has had to alter the original design of the Ti'avea Airport due to interference from villagers and as a result, a $3 million variation was approved by the Tenders Board.

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