ATC Director, Kelvin Vercoe, discusses Airways Corporation’s proposal to withdraw Air Traffic Services from seven regional airports.
Two weeks into the COVID level 4 lockdown, Airways Corporation made the abrupt decision to remove Air Traffic Services (ATS) from seven regional aerodromes (Flight Information at Milford and Kapiti, and Air Traffic Control at Gisborne, Invercargill, Napier, New Plymouth and Rotorua).
Based on information provided to NZALPA by Airways, the decision to withdraw this essential safety service appears to be premised solely on the basis of cost-cutting requirements in the wake of the COVID pandemic and what were reduced flight statistics during the level 4 lockdown. In light of the unsound justifications that informed Airways’ decision, including financial projections which NZALPA contends are inaccurate, its proposal to close ATS in seven regional aerodromes constitutes a serious threat to the safety of New Zealand’s aviators and travelling public.
“If only the knowledge and opinion of actual subject matter experts was considered”.
That this decision was made at the most senior level at Airways without apparently considering any input from anyone with operational Air Traffic Control experience defies logic. In my opinion, any current or former active participant in aviation, with an understanding of safety and risk, could easily and passionately give a knowledgeable and prescient summary of the heightened risks such an egregious proposal poses now and into the future.
Airways’ proposal appears to have given little to no thought of the effects this would have on aviation safety, as no safety cases or risk analyses were ever requested or completed by Airways prior to its announcement that these services would be withdrawn. Furthermore, the reduction in proven safe aviation infrastructure in half of New Zealand’s regional centres will undoubtedly affect regional development and the essential domestic COVID recovery which has tentatively only just begun.
Our Air Traffic Service members have been supportive of Airways and the aviation industry’s need to find cost savings to offset reduced incomes, evidenced by our genuine offer earlier in the year of a considerable income sacrifice. Unfortunately, and surprisingly, this offer was rejected by Airways.
Given that Airways initially believed the closure process was as simple as consulting with NZALPA and other affected staff over inevitable redundancies prior to closing the tower doors and advising everyone of this, it would be an understatement to say that we were all astounded that Airways’ Board of Directors supported the CEO, Graeme Sumner, and his Executive Leadership Team in progressing this initiative without what, we believe ,would have been essential knowledge of the subject matter expertise we offered, and insight and studies into the effects this proposal would have on aviation safety in New Zealand.
Of further concern to us were the reckless public comments from both Airways’ CEO and Air New Zealand’s Chief Operational Integrity and Safety Officer saying that aviation or passenger safety would not be compromised by the proposed changes, without providing any evidence to support these fallacious and naïve claims.
Fortunately, the final decision for any change to the current regime rests with the Director of the Civil Aviation Authority, following an assessment of the aeronautical safety and risk studies currently being conducted by each of the seven affected aerodromes. As the Director has publicly stated, the CAA will consult independently with local participants and stakeholders (including NZALPA) after it receives the relevant aeronautical studies, and its decision making will be based solely on safety outcomes, and not issues such as financial implications. With the lengthy aeronautical studies for each aerodrome well underway, we do not expect any decisions from the CAA until next year.
Before I conclude, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the NZALPA team that has been involved in this from the start, and the mountain of work that has been completed to date, with still more to come. I will be deliberately presumptive and thank those folks on all of our behalf. They have done an incredible job in documenting, highlighting and expressing our ATC and Pilot knowledge and concerns to each of the companies conducting the studies, as well as the CAA, and other key stakeholders. Thanks a million folks – you know who you are.
Quoting from a construction site sign I saw recently, ‘Safety doesn’t cost, it pays’, which succinctly highlighted an awareness and understanding of the value of their safety systems; it made me consider the dangerous direction some aviation organisations are heading when safety is determined by cost or expenditure. A race to the bottom in safety is not a place we want to go, so let’s make sure we don’t go there.
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