In the latest clarification from the government on the subject of its new private airliner, a senior aviation official said yesterday that the French-made Airbus A320 is not yet the property of Cambodia, as ownership documents have not been finalized.
The 150-seat jet made its inaugural flight from Phnom Penh International Airport on Thursday. At the time, CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said the Airbus—which retails for about $91.5 million—had been bought new from the company’s assembly plant in France.
But on Friday, Mr. Yeap said that Prime Minister Hun Sen told the Council of Ministers that the aircraft was in fact on lease. On the same day, Funcinpec Executive President Nhiek Bun Chhay issued a statement saying the plane had been leased from a “friendship country” at a “very cheap price.”
Mr. Yeap and Mr. Bun Chhay could not be reached yesterday.
“The agreement is not signed yet,” said Keo Sivorn, director-general of the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation (SSCA), the government’s aviation regulator. Mr. Sivorn declined to specify whether the aircraft will be purchased or leased.
“It is still under draft or something. It is not yet black and white,” Mr. Sivorn said of the aircraft procurement agreement, adding that SSCA Secretary of State Mao Havanall has barred aviation officials from discussing the plane’s acquisition with reporters. “I have my orders from the secretary of state,” he said.
Pham The Hung, country manager for Vietnam Airlines, which is part of a joint venture with Cambodia’s national carrier, Cambodia Angkor Air, said Vietnam was not likely the “friendship country” that had provided the plane to the government.
“I don’t think this is a plane coming from Vietnam,” Mr. The Hung said, adding that he had heard that the plane was a “gift” from China.
Mr. The Hung said that regardless of where the plane came from, it would be a burdensome expense to operate.
“It’s too expensive to maintain an airplane for officials only,” he said, noting that an Airbus A320 costs roughly $1 million per year to operate and maintain. The Vietnamese government does not have its own private plane, Mr. The Hung added.
Chinese Embassy spokesman Yang Tian Yue could not be reached.
Opposition lawmakers have expressed surprise that the government had acquired a plane solely for use by officials.
“Whether they buy or they rent, it’s ridiculous,” SRP lawmaker Son Chhay said yesterday.
“We borrow about $1 billion per year; we don’t even have enough revenue,” Mr. Chhay said. “Are the donor governments willing to give more money [for Cambodia] to buy its own jet?”
“And then [there is] the question of where the money is coming from. We don’t see any part of the budget about purchasing an airplane,” Mr. Chhay added.
“They cannot keep the nation in the dark.”
(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)