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Samoa airline seeks waiver to operate local flights

An airline based in Samoa has filed an emergency application with the U.S. Department of Transportation seeking a waiver from federal cabotage law to operate domestic flights within American Samoa.

The application has the support of Gov. Togiola Tulafono as well as Dr. Malouamaua Tuiolosega, owner of Manu’a Health Service. Both have filed letters of support with the federal agency.

Islander Enterprises Samoa Ltd., doing business as Samoa Air, filed its application Tuesday to operate flights between Pago Pago International Airport and Ofu and Fitiuta domestic airports in the Manu’a island group. The application comes weeks after the October inter Samoa talks where the governor pledged his support to the Samoa Government for Samoa Air to provide air service to the Manu’a islands, especially to Ofu, which has been without commercial service for some three years.

In its application, Samoa Air requests the exemption be granted for an initial period of 30 days and that flight operations are primarily made necessary to meet a critical need for air transportation services to the Manu’a islands, including providing proper medical care for the residents of the Manu'a Islands.

Tutuila-based Inter Island Airways discontinued commercial service to the Ofu Airport three years ago but continues to operate flights to Fitiuta airport.

However, Samoa Air says that there is a pressing need to “supplement the current but highly irregular flights” offered by Inter Island Airways to Fitiuta airport.

Samoa Air says granting its application for an exemption to provide domestic service for American Samoa will ensure that the physicians and clinical staff of the Manu' a Health System and the rural access hospital in the Manu' a Islands have access to reliable air transportation services that are necessary to provide vital medical services to the islands' residents.

“When Samoa Air is approached to conduct a flight between Pago Pago and Fitiuta Airport, Samoa Air will contact Inter Island Air and give it the option of conducting the flight provided it can do so within a reasonable period of time in consideration of the urgent nature of the required transportation,” according to a footnote in the application, which also states that Samoa Air plans to use its two 9-passenger seat plane for the proposed service.

Included with the application is a Nov. 14 two-page letter of support from Togiola to U.S. Secretary Ray LaHood. The governor pointed out that no U.S. carrier is serving the Ofu Airport and service by the one U.S. carrier to  Fitiuta Airport “has not been provided on a regular and dependable basis.”

“Due to the lack of sufficient commercial air transportation between Pago Pago and the Manu' a Islands, the physicians and clinical staff of the Manu'a Health System and the rural access hospital in the Manu' a Islands have been greatly hindered in their ability to provide vital medical services to the residents of the Manu'a Islands,” he wrote.

The governor urged USDOT to grant Samoa Air’s request “so that urgently needed medical personnel and supplies, can be transported by air to the Manu’a islands and critically ill patients can be medivaced back to the main hospital on Tutuila, as necessary.”

“The reestablishment of reliable air transportation services between the Manu'a Islands and Pago Pago... provided by Samoa Air is necessary for the welfare of the residents of the Manu'a Islands,” he concluded.

Tuiolosega, in his Nov. 15th three-page letter of support to LaHood, provided a thorough explanation of what he says are the difficulties faced by the Manu'a Health System in providing vital medical services to the residents of the Manu'a Islands due to the lack of sufficient air transportation.

For example, he says that since late 2009 there has been no air service for Ofu island, whose residents along with those of Olosega  islands have had to rely on charters using fishing catamarans (or alia) to travel to the island of Ta'u in order to catch flights to Tutuila.

On a calm day the boat trip takes 1.5 to 2 hours wharf-to-wharf, but the journey can take up to 3 to 4 hours or may not be able to operate at all if the weather is bad. The trip from the wharf to the airport on Ta'u is another half-hour to an hour.

The only other route for Ofu and Olosega residents is the every other week sail by the MV Sili , he said.

Tuiolosega went on to explain that the flights operated by Inter Island Air between Fitiuta Airport and Pago Pago have been interrupted recently because of mechanical and other problems. “Thus, there is a pressing need, humanitarian and otherwise, for reliable alternative air service to ensure that our patients, medical staff and supplies can be transported between Ta'u [island] and Pago Pago when Inter Island Air is unable to operate on this route,” he said.

He also told USDOT that without “air service we are not able to transport passengers and needed cargo between Pago Pago and the Manu' a Islands, specifically passengers consisting of primarily: women, children, elderly and working adults, government and private workers including their cargo.”

“The critical cargo include: medicines, medical supplies, food and school supplies,” he said.

Tuiolosega also says the  volume of passenger traffic that is being disrupted by the cessation of Inter Island's service is over 1,500 people and there is no U.S. air carrier that flies to Ofu Airport anymore.

“The people of Ofu and Olosega have no air services -period,” he declared. “In addition, there is a need for an alternative to the service between Pago Pago and Ta’u offered by Inter Island Air so that patients, medical staff and supplies can be transported when Inter Island is unable to operate.”

“Accordingly, I urge the Department of Transportation to grant the request of Samoa Air for an emergency exemption to provide cabotage air transportation services...,” he concluded.

It's unclear as to when the USDOT will make a decision on the application but Samoa Air is expected to serve a copy of its application on Inter Island Airways and other interested parties for comments.