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Pilots delighted at Supreme Court decision on Wellington Airport safety

21 DECEMBER 2017

The New Zealand Air Line Pilot’s Association (NZALPA) was today delighted at the Supreme Court ruling to uphold the Court of Appeal decision on the safety areas required at major airports in New Zealand. 

Having earlier landed a 777 Boeing  plane from Los Angeles, NZALPA President and international pilot Tim Robinson declared this “a great day for pilots, air crew, and the wider travelling public.”

Earlier this year, the Court of Appeal determined that international civil aviation law, as applied in New Zealand law, requires 240 metre long safety areas, or such shorter distance as is practicable, and not less than 90 metres. 

Alternatively, a shorter distance can be used if specialised arrestor systems are also installed.  These are commonly known as an EMAS (engineered materials arrestor system).

This Supreme Court appeal was brought by both Wellington International Airport Limited (WIAL) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court dismissed the appeal and found that the CAA Director “erred in law in finding that a 90m RESA would be acceptable if WIAL’s extension plans go ahead.

NZALPA successfully argued that the Court of Appeal's decision was correctly decided, that the appeal should be dismissed, and the Director be directed to reconsider his March 2015 decision should WIAL maintain that application. 

Most aircraft accidents occur during landing and take-off. These include incidents where the aircraft ‘undershoots’ (lands or takes-off short of) or ‘overruns’ the end of the runway.

“The risk of such an incident can be likened to the chance of a severe earthquake. Although the likelihood of an ‘undershoot’ or overrun is low when compared to the total volume of air traffic, the consequences can be catastrophic, Robinson said.

The original decision made by the Court of Appeal considered evidence that a landing overshoot incident at Wellington Airport would likely result in the death of all on board.  At the northern end, the presence of State Highway 1 lanes and traffic could cause further loss.

“International aviation authorities including the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the Federal Bureau of Air Safety, the Flight Safety Foundation, and other organisations in the UK and EU say that one critical safety measure to mitigate the risk of an overrun or undershoot incident is to provide a RESA of suitable length.

“In the RESA, an overrunning or undershooting aircraft can come to a stop in safe off runway space, thus reducing damage to the aircraft and maximising the safety of those on board.

RESAs must be a cleared and graded area but do not have to be constructed to the same specifications as a runway.

Wellington Airport already has exemptions from the CAA for non-compliant Movement Air Guidance (MAG) signage (to prevent aircraft ‘straying’ on to the runway) and non-complaint runway width for international aerodromes. 

“A Non-compliant RESA will increase the risk of accident even further under Professor James Reason’s internationally recognised ‘Swiss Cheese’ model, Robinson said. 

“In the Swiss Cheese model, an organisation's defences against failure are modeled as a series of barriers, represented as slices of cheese. The holes in the slices represent weaknesses in individual parts of the system and are continually varying in size and position across the slices.

“The system produces failures when a hole in each slice momentarily aligns, permitting (in Reason's words) “‘a trajectory of accident opportunity’.

“Even though airline pilots have the most to gain from extended runways and the extra international flights they encourage, safety will always be our first priority and this should also be so for both New Zealand’s airport companies and especially for the CAA,” said Robinson.  

END

For more information: Lisa-Marie Richan 027 278 0441

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