...but the FSM doesn’t seem to care
Colonia, Yap-- “A lot of people just don’t get it,” says U.S. Ambassador Robert Riley, referring to the response of FSM’s national leaders, United Airlines and U.S. government officials to the challenge facing Yap due to the suspension of United’s weekly flight between Yap and Palau.
Beginning in early January, travelers between the two islands will be required to transit through Guam, a decision made by United’s claim there’s not enough business to maintain the flight.
“It’s a business decision. We get that,” Riley says, though he says the impact is significant to Yap, yet solutions from FSM’s leadership have not been forthcoming. And time is getting short with the last flight scheduled for January 7, 2018.
Riley’s frustration is felt by many in Yap including non-FSM citizens who have lived and worked on the island for many years. Those who lack an American visa rely on Palau as their only transit point. An American visa is required for anyone going through the Guam airport, the only transit point to Yap after the Palau flight stops.
To help solve the problem, Ambassador Riley offered to send some of his staff to the U.S. Embassy in Palau to assist with processing visa applications. Even though only eight appointments per week can be handled by the Palau embassy’s small staff, and all appointments are filled between now and January, his offer was turned down.
Yap-based commercial enterprises that ship their products to and from Yap and Palau and on to Manila, as well as government and other workers who attend meetings and conferences on the two islands are also impacted.
“And then there are the Yapese students who attend school in Palau,” notes Francis Itimai, Yap’s Director of Youth and Civic Affairs and former Secretary of FSM’s Department of Transportation, Communication and Infrastructure. “They can’t afford the time and expense of going through Guam every time they need to come home.” The direct flight also insures that the students can be safely boarded in each location and sent directly to their destination with no layover.
“I know it sounds frivolous,” Mr. Itimai says, “but there’s also the Palau bakery that supplies us with our bread.” Their popular bread comes in on the Saturday night flight and is sold out by noon Sunday when a line forms in front of Ace’s store in Colonia. Some customers are buying up multiple loaves to put in their freezers.
FSM President Peter Christian was in Yap recently to meet with Governor Tony Gannigyan, state legislators, representatives of the 2018 MicroGames and the Yap Visitors Bureau and business leaders to discuss what is being done to solve a problem that affects almost everyone on the island. Prior to the president’s arrival, Yap’s leaders submitted a formal, written request to the president that the issue be discussed and solutions presented by the FSM national government. The document offered options that had been identified by Yap’s leaders.
While President Christian acknowledged the need to fill the gap, many in attendance at the meeting in the state’s senate chamber expressed disappointment that he provided no concrete solutions and offered little insight into what is being explored by the national government. When the floor was opened to questions, Mr. Christian said he would only answer questions that were given to him in advance and in writing to insure that he would not say something that he might regret later. “You know, I’m a politician,” he said, “I answer questions too quickly when I should think more about the answer.” With no prior notice of his request, no questions were forthcoming and the meeting was adjourned.
One potential solution to the problem of air service between Yap and Palau is Pacific Mission Aviation, a non-profit, on-demand carrier that currently offers passenger and cargo services between Yap and its Outer Islands. It also offers “emergency medical evacuation, search and rescue, disaster relief, maritime patrol for illegal fishing” and other services in Palau and has expressed interest in adding the route between the two islands to its itinerary. However, as a non-profit organization, PMA does not pay a tariff and cannot offer commercial flights.
The Yap State Government has asked PMA to provide a proposal addressing this issue. Manta Ray Bay Resort, the primary tourist destination on Yap that offers Palau - Yap packages for divers, has been granted approval for two PMA charters to carry tourists to the island in February. “But that’s just a one-time deal,” the president declared, with no guarantee beyond that date.
Caroline Islands Air, a unit of the FSM National Government, is a charter service with one plane that flies between Yap, Pohnpei and Chuuk and has been identified as another possible solution. Formed by local law in 1997, CIA provides contractual passenger and freight delivery services and, according to the 2016 public audit, is also meant to “train citizens in professions related to aeronautics” and “act as a freely associated state air carrier within the meaning of the Federal Program and Services Agreement concluded pursuant to the Compact of Free Association.” In addition, it is mandated to “enter into joint ventures with other entities in order to effectuate its operations.”
China recently donated a short-haul, 17-seat, Y-12E turboprop utility aircraft to CIA that has been designated for cargo transport, rescue and medical services. The plane’s final base in either Yap or Pohnpei has not yet been determined but there is no hangar in Yap where it can be housed and no clearance has been provided. CIA’s pilot has been given training in flying the Y-12 but he does not yet have certification, according to Mr. Riley.
Yap’s leaders have suggested that PMA be given the Y-12 to service the Yap-Palau route but
CIA is considered President Christian’s “baby” since he was an early supporter of the carrier and his brother-in-law, Lukner Weilbacher, was Chairman of the Board of Directors from 1997 to 2008 when it was announced that the carrier would shut down operations due to high operating costs. Some privately question if this is why Mr. Christian is holding back and not offering more immediate solutions.
Asked about his association with CIA, Mr. Christian quickly responded, “Some people think CIA stands for ‘Christian Air’ but it’s subsidized by FSM.” His close hold on the nation’s transportation sector is seen as a possible indication of personal interest. His brother-in-law, Weilbacher, is now Secretary of the Department of Transportation, Communication and Infrastructure; his son-in-law heads the Division of Civil Aviation; and his son is the agent for Air Nauru and Air Niugini, two other carriers that are subsidized by the FSM government and China respectively to serve the FSM.
Though offering potential solutions for the Yap-Palau route, neither carrier serves Yap despite the subsidies, a point of contention for some Yapese who see their taxes being used for something that they are not benefiting from.
“Why not offer a subsidy to United?” asks James Lukan, Director of the Yap State Department of Resource and Development. Lukan has been asked by United’s manager in Yap to provide a list of foreign workers to help build a case for the island to negotiate with United. “All options should be looked at seriously and soon,” he adds. “There is no fallback position for Yap.”