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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Fuel feud leaves tourists stranded at Angkor Wat

Travelers headed for Angkor Wat in Cambodia wait in the departure hall of Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport yesterday after their Tonlesap Airlines flight was canceled because the airline owes what Far EasternAir Transport says is more than NT$3 million in fuel costs.Photo: Chu Pei-hsiung, Taipei Times

LEASE:Far Eastern Air Transport accused Tonlesap of failing to pay US$100,000 in fuel charges and suspended flights. The Cambodian airline denies the allegations

By Shelley Shan / Staff Reporter

More than 200 Taiwanese tourists traveling to and from Angkor Wat in Cambodia were delayed yesterday after Far Eastern Air Transport (FAT) unexpectedly suspended its flights to the world heritage site.

The Taiwanese airline, which resumed services in April last year, leased one of its aircraft and cabin crew to Tonlesap Airlines in Cambodia, which offers charter flights to Angkor Wat.

However, the Cambodian carrier has failed to pay FAT accumulated fuel charges of NT$3 million (US$100,000), FAT said.

FAT’s decision to suspend the flights delayed trips for 255 Taiwanese tourists, Tonlesap Airlines said.

FAT spokesperson Kevin Yang (楊天佑) said the company had been trying to collect the charges from Tonlesap, but the Cambodian carrier had ignored the requests.

“The payment was due on Monday and Tonlesap has not paid the money owed. We decided to stop the service,” Yang said, adding that the company was a victim as well.

Tonlesap denies the allegations. The Cambodian airline said in a statement that it had paid FAT about NT$4.43 million as a guarantee, adding that a dispute remained over about NT$1 million.

Tonlesap said it had tried to negotiate with FAT, but it had yet to receive any goodwill response from the Taiwanese company.

“We sent a legal attestation letter to FAT on Monday requesting it to resolve the dispute based on the terms of the contract,” Tonlesap said in a statement. “FAT’s unilateral act has damaged the interests of the passengers. We will actively protect the passengers and seek restitution from FAT.”

The unexpected move by FAT angered tourists who had arrived at Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport early in the morning to catch the flight.

“If they wanted to cancel the flight, they should have told us at least a day in advance,” an angry female passenger told a reporter. “Now we’re here and have already taken days off from work and they tell us the flight has been canceled. What’s this?”

The Civil Aeronautics Administration (CAA) said Tonlesap had dispatched a Boeing 737-200 aircraft to carry the Taiwanese passengers back to Taiwan, which was scheduled to arrive at Taoyuan at 7:15pm yesterday, adding that the Cambodian airline must bring back all the stranded Taiwanese tourists at Angkor Wat who were scheduled to board its flight.

The CAA has also asked Tonlesap to provide a copy of its flight schedule from now until the end of this month so that it could monitor its service.

The CAA added that while it would not intervene in the dispute, it would accept passenger complaints and help them seek compensation from Tonlesap.

The agency said that while it had heard rumors of the dispute between the two airlines, it did not expect FAT to suspend the flight service this way.

FAT said that Tonlesap is run by Alex Lou (樓文豪), who is accused of involvement in siphoning funds belonging to FAT three years ago.

After being detained for two months, Lou was released on NT$4 million bail and barred from leaving the country.

FAT said that it then sought compensation of NT$790 million from Lou after the airline resumed operations last year. Lou then convinced FAT he could help the carrier expand its operations by negotiating aviation agreements with Cambodia, Palau and other countries, and was able to go to these countries because of the petition from FAT, it said.

Aside from the unpaid bills, FAT also accused Lou of insider trading of FAT shares and transferring those gains to Tonlesap and other airlines he owns, adding that it had requested prosecutors to investigate Lou.

The CAA said FAT’s finances were not sound, adding that it had failed to keep a cash flow of NT$150 million, one of the main requirements the CAA had insisted on for FAT to continue operations.

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