United flights to Majuro halted

The main terminal at Amata Kabua International Airport, the roof of which a February 2020 engineering evaluation determined was at “high risk” of collapse. Photo: Giff Johnson.

GIFF JOHNSON

A once in one thousand year natural disaster in Tonga last weekend broke its submarine fiber cable in two places, severing Tonga’s communication links to the outside world.

Majuro, this week, also experienced a severing of links to the outside world in a different way. A man-made disaster in the form of lack of action that has been in progress for two years resulted this week in a halt to all United Airlines flights into Majuro, effectively cutting off passenger travel from the capital to the outside world. 

United notified RMI authorities Tuesday evening that due to safety concerns for employees and customers for continued use of the airport terminal building, built in 1972, the airline was suspending regular service to Majuro.

The Journal was informed that Cabinet scheduled an emergency briefing on the airport problem for Wednesday afternoon.

While initially Asia Pacific Airlines mail and tuna export flights were also in question, it appeared Wednesday that the regularly scheduled APA flight this Friday will happen.

As United’s notice to RMI officials Tuesday afternoon trickled into the consciousness of people on Majuro, Ports Authority board Chair and newly appointed Acting CEO Larry Hernandez called an emergency meeting Wednesday morning at Amata Kabua International Airport (AKIA). It involved many key players, including UA Station Manager Salome Andrike, Ports Seaport Manager Thomas Maddison, Acting Foreign Secretary Junior Aini, PII Manager Daniel Kramer, and others. 

The meeting, which Hernandez said “went well,” came up with a set of recommendations for immediate action aimed to maintain mail, cargo and medical diagnostic services. Andrike indicated she would run the recommendations by her corporate headquarters in the US for review, said Hernandez.

He said the aim is “to get everything done day and night so the Friday APA flight won’t be disrupted.”

Hernandez said his first priority is to ensure no disruption in mail and cargo services. “We don’t want those affected,” he said. “Then we’ll work on the passenger flights.”

Hernandez said he didn’t blame United for its action. “The safety of people is of the utmost importance,” he said.

Meanwhile, unofficial word received by the Journal Wednesday is that United flight service to and from Majuro is expected to be halted for about one month. UA is awaiting action from the RMI government to fix the main terminal building, which a 2020 engineering report described as a “high risk to the general public and those utilizing facility.”

Chief Secretary Kino Kabua told the Journal that she was advised by Andrike Tuesday night that the flight suspension would take effect immediately with the scheduled Wednesday-Thursday Island Hopper. “No UA and APA flights until they have a proper and safe working space,” Kabua said United’s action.

Kabua said the aim now is for “some immediate temporary solutions to get UA office up and running at the airport so we can resume flights into Majuro.” 

Although the Pryzm Consulting evaluation of AKIA terminal was issued in February 2020 and provided to Ports Authority, it did not result in action to address the dangerous situation of termite and other damage in the terminal. It is only in the past two weeks that President Kabua became aware of the report, which he shared with Nitijela last week Monday.

“It’s unfortunate we’ve reached this stage,” the Chief Secretary said. “For now we will come up with some immediate temporary solutions — without fail.”

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