Protesting Tribal High Chiefs Cause Air Calédonie Flight Shutdown

Air Calédonie has paused its domestic flight operations until the end of the month after island chiefs came out against a compulsory health pass. The tribal chiefs control airports on several of New Caledonia’s islands and have shut them down in protest, causing Air Calédonie to halt its operations.

Air Calédonie has parked their four ATRS until November 1. Photo: ATR

Unrest in the islands over vaccinations and a health pass

Ten days ago, New Caledonia issued a health pass for its 272,000 residents after a COVID-19 outbreak in September infected approximately 2,000 people and killed 200. The pass allows access to a variety of discretionary activities, like going to a restaurant or catching a domestic flight to one of New Caledonia’s 55 odd islands.

You don’t need to be vaccinated to get the health pass (only 52% of the French territory’s adult population is fully vaccinated). The pass is also available to those who’ve recovered from COVID-19 or have proof of a recent negative status test.

Louis Mapou, President of the New Caledonian Government, has the country largely locked down to help contain the virus. However, Air Calédonie had continued to operate scheduled flights to keep the territory’s islands connected and ferry essential supplies and workers around.

Like everywhere else, not everyone is a fan of vaccinations and the government’s push to get everyone vaccinated. Earlier this month, Henri Dokucas Naisseline, high chief of the Gaumha district on the island of Mare, halted a government vaccination drive among tribes under his control, saying the vaccine was dangerous and making it compulsory was an affront to human dignity.

It follows he’s not a fan of the health pass either. It’s a view that’s gained some currency with other high chiefs, particularly those scattered around New Caledonia’s Loyalty Islands. The chiefs object to certain advantages being made available to health pass holders that are not available to non-health pass holders.

Air Calédonie’s domestic network. Source: Air Calédonie

High chiefs shut airports, causing Air Calédonie to halt operations

These island chiefs control several airports around New Caledonia and have decided to close them in protest against the introduction of the health pass. As a result, Air Calédonie flights from its Noumea base to Mare, Lifou, and Ouvea are canceled for the remainder of October.

Air Calédonie is an interesting little airline with a fleet of four ATR 72-600s. The airline should not be confused with its big brother international airline called Aircalin (also known as Air Calédonie International), which is also based in Noumea.

The airline is majority-owned by the New Caledonian Government, but the Loyalty Islands Province, the North Province, and the South Province all own significant chunks of the airline. Consequently, as is happening now, Air Calédonie is a pawn in a tussle between the majority owner and high chiefs out in the islands whose provincial councils representing the tribes also have equity stakes in the airline.

An Air Calédonie ATR at Koné. Photo: Air Calédonie

Air France has an 0.53% stake in the airline, and the power of the high chiefs to cause an airline to shut down probably has some head-scratching going on in Paris.

We are aware of the difficulty of the situation for people who had reservations on these flights,” says Air Calédonie.“Air Calédonie expresses its full support to Caledonians who are going through a difficult period.”

The airline tentatively plans to resume flying on November 1.