Tonga's King Tupou VI has criticised his government's lack of transparency surrounding Lulutai Airlines (L8, Tongatapu) in a May 2 speech to mark the closing of the 2023-24 parliamentary session. The speech follows the Polynesian nation's auditor general recently calling out the government for failing to provide the required share certificates proving ownership, which he needed to complete the annual report.

The opposition has also accused Tongan Prime Minister Siaosi 'Ofakivahafolau Sovaleni (aka Hu'akavameiliku) of making decisions in "secrecy" about the state-owned carrier. The PM, along with the country's deputy prime minister, finance minister, and civil aviation minister, are all on the airline's board.

The king's speech canvassed the themes of transparency, accountability, and focusing on the business of government, not enterprises. He said the government had a responsibility to be transparent in operating state-owned public enterprises because all public monies should be accounted for.

"It cannot just take funds from one institution and put it into another without such bodies or government explaining to parliament and the taxpayers how and why such public monies were spent," he said.

The king also noted the government's decision to run Lulutai Airlines "without qualified professionals."

Lulutai Airlines, Tonga's only scheduled operator, is down to a single DHC-6-400 after its Saab 340B(Plus) was damaged after striking a cement block during a runway incident at Tongatapu (Fua'amotu) Airport on December 8, 2023. That aircraft remains out of service and is awaiting final reports and recommendations from investigators.

In response to the king's comments, Hu'akavameiliku told reporters that the government had been transparent about Lulutai's funding and operations. Given the essential public service the carrier provides, he said the government would continue to operate it unless a buyer can be found.

“If Lulutai withdraws, would there be any airline services for the outer islands? Is there anyone who can buy out the government and can operate the airline privately?” he asked. Lulutai's single aircraft provides scheduled passenger flights between Tongatapu and Eua, Ha'apai, Niuatoputapu, and Vava'u.

There is no potential buyer currently interested in Lulutai, but Hu'akavameiliku said a divestment was something the government was open to if the right buyer came along. Naming Air New Zealand or Fiji Airways as examples, he said: "We're happy to talk if someone is interested to work together, in partnership or shareholdings with the company moving forward. The government will pull back once we're more comfortable with good services being provided to all the islands."