January 25, 2016 / 6:13 AM / 4 years ago

UPDATE 1-Qantas, Air NZ halt Vanuatu flights over runway risks; Virgin Australia maintains schedule

* Qantas, Air NZ say Port Vila airport runway risky

* Virgin Australia says runway safe; maintains flights

* Flight cancellations a blow to tourism - industry executive (Updates with Virgin Australia to maintain operations)

By Jarni Blakkarly

SYDNEY, Jan 25 (Reuters) - Qantas Airways and Air New Zealand have suspended flights to Vanuatu due to safety concerns about its airport runway, a likely blow to tourism and the Pacific island nation’s recovery efforts after a cyclone last year.

Virgin Australia, however, said it would continue to fly to Port Vila, after its investigators examined the runway over the weekend and deemed it safe.

Australia and New Zealand account for the bulk of visitors to Vanuatu, which relied on tourism for more than a third of its GDP last year, government data shows. In March, the island was ravaged by Cyclone Pam, which wiped out more than 90 percent of its crops and disrupted the lives of most of its population.

Air New Zealand, which flew once a week from Auckland to Port Vila, said it had sent its last flight on Sunday. “Weather and jet engine activity are resulting in loose material on the runway,” spokeswoman Janna Wilkinson added.

In a statement, Qantas said it had cancelled a codeshare agreement that included selling tickets for local carrier Air Vanuatu over concerns about the condition of the runway.

“It would be worse than Cyclone Pam if any more carriers stop flying,” Bryan Death, the chairman of the Vanuatu Hotels and Resorts Association, told Reuters by telephone, adding that a snap election on Friday had complicated efforts to secure government funding for the airport repairs.

Officials at Vanuatu’s civil aviation department were not immediately available for comment, but Air Vanuatu, which is operating flights as usual, said the department had put in place several safety measures after an emergency weekend meeting.

These measures included daily sweeping of the runway, regular inspections and marking a 200 m (656 ft) stretch for urgent repairs, the airline said in a statement.

Fiji Airways, Solomon Airlines and Air Niugini, the national airline of Papua New Guinea, are still flying to Port Vila according to a spokesperson from Air Vanuatu. (Additional reporting by Colin Packham in SYDNEY and Rebecca Howard in WELLINGTON. Editing by Jane Wardell and Miral Fahmy)

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