Samoa Airways ominous wall of silence

There has been deafening silence about what’s happening with Samoa Airways.

A week ago, the Samoa Observer front paged a story about Fonoti Micheline Tauaa, the airline’s sales manager being put on leave pending an investigation into allegations against her of sharing business confidential information with a top government official.

There are far worse misdemeanors than sharing information with senior government officials who normally have an oversight role over public enterprises anyway, but that’s another matter. But according to the article, when asked for comment, Fonoti confirmed that yes, she had been put on leave with full pay since 30th July. And no, the allegations against her are false, and she had every intention of clearing her name.

And that was as far as the coverage of this disturbing story went. Because when asked about the suspension of Fonoti, the responsible minister, Lautafi Selafi Purcell said he did not know the details and passed the ball to the Samoa Airways CEO Seiuli Alvin Tuala.

The CEO in turn, made himself scarce and neither answered his telephone nor responded to email communication.  Samoa Airways’, newly appointed Chairman of the board of directors Muagututia Lafaele Ngau Chung, similarly could not be reached for comment, although he was in Samoa.

It’s been more than a week now and there is still silence from the responsible minister and management and board of Samoa Airways on the worrying subject and more specifically on the investigation that was to either confirm or disprove the allegations against Fonoti bearing in mind its almost two months since Fonoti was suspended on full pay.

Which does raise the question; does the public have a right to non-commercially sensitive information of public enterprises that is deemed of public interest?

The answer would have to be a resounding yes especially when the withholding of such information introduces a level of secrecy that is not in keeping with the good governance transparency principle expected of government and of public enterprises.

In the case of Samoa Airways, the disclosure about the suspension of the airline’s sales manager is one of a series of news items that appear to have unintentionally found their way into the public arena.

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First, there was the disclosure of the airline’s financial position and the $6 million plus loss sustained in operating the new jet services. That was soon followed by disclosure of the salary of the airline’s CEO being hiked to a whopping $300,000 a year.

Many questioned the wisdom and justification of the salary hike given the new airline’s precarious finances and other unresolved operating challenges. Even cabinet appears to have been in the dark about the increase with Minister Lautafi defending it while the prime minister publicly expressed an opposite view and concern.

There’s been no word since whether the increase went into effect anyway.

And then now, we learn (as of last week) that the airline has been without its sales manager, Fonoti Micheline Tauaa, a long serving senior staff member of Polynesian Airlines.

It’s only a few weeks now since Samoa Airways hired a commercial manager from outside Samoa. This would mean that the suspended sales manager would have been a key member of the management team that has nurtured and navigated the airline through the inevitable turbulence of its unplanned birth and the challenges of getting it off the ground quickly.

In fact, Fonoti Micheline Tauaa may also have been the most senior member of that team with any  practical experience in operating airline services and with intimate knowledge of Samoa’s local and overseas markets.

In the circumstances, and given the cut-throat competition in the airline world and the scarcity of airline expertise in Samoa, one can only wonder at the decision to go without the services of the airline’s sale manager, and about the motives for doing so at such a crucial time for the new airline.

The pending investigation should help provide answers. Which still leaves the question of why the secrecy surrounding Samoa Airways’ affairs.  

It is said of war that it is too important to be left to the generals. And so it is with running airlines with taxpayers’ money in light of Samoa’s past experience with Polynesian Airline, where left largely to their own devices, persons in positions of authority ran the national airline to the ground and along with it the nation’s finances and Samoa’s good name.

One sees the signs of a similar crash and burn happening again, which would be a sure sign of madness and a disaster that need not happen.

AF Mapusua

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