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Air traffic services to cease at seven NZ airports

Passenger safety and airline operations will not be affected by Airways’ decision to withdraw air traffic services at seven New Zealand airports, says Airways CEO Graeme Sumner.

Airways NZ has confirmed it will withdraw services from seven airports while it works with the industry on a cross-sector plan to deliver a shared vision for regional aviation, modernise aviation services and get back to growth in the post-pandemic environment.

Airways will collaborate with a working party that includes the affected airports, Civil Aviation Authority, a general aviation representative and Air New Zealand to plan a safe and orderly transition.

The working group will identify when the current services will be withdrawn from each airport and what type of service, if any they may be replaced with. This process is expected to take around six months.

As each airport completes its process Airways will withdraw the air traffic control services from its towers at Hawke's Bay, Gisborne, New Plymouth, Rotorua and Invercargill airports. The company will also cease providing airfield flight information services at Kapiti Coast Airport and Milford Sound Piopiotahi Aerodrome.

Graeme says the dramatic collapse in flight numbers prompted by the COVIDd-19 pandemic had hastened the need to make changes to how air navigation services were delivered to ensure their long-term viability.

"Over the past month Airways has worked alongside our staff and their union, the airports concerned and Air New Zealand to determine how we can best respond to the current crisis while also ensuring we are able to help drive the aviation sector’s recovery and future growth," he says.

"We extended the timeframe for consulting with and gathering feedback from our people. Airways put constructive and workable proposals to the union’s leadership which would have guaranteed their members’ employment for 12 months in exchange for a 25 per cent pay reduction. It is unfortunate that our people were not given the opportunity to vote on this proposal – an action that is in stark contrast to compromises made by their pilot colleagues," he says.

Invercargill Airport general manager Nigel Finnerty says he's " disappointed that Airways have decided to close the Air Traffic Control Tower at Invercargill Airport".

"We do not support the decision to remove the air traffic controllers from our operations before we have a solution in place to safely and effectively manage aviation operations in our airspace. It is too soon to say what the impacts of this decision on our airport may be, and we need some time to assess this, while also attempting to find solutions.

"We believe that digital technology could be one of those solutions, which is why we will continue to work with Airways in development of the digital tower, and will call for their commitment to finishing this important project," he says. "Operating an airport is complex business that relies on many different organisations doing the right things."

"When one participant decides to withdraw from the process before there is a robust solution agreed, we must be very careful in how we proceed. We have about 22,000 aircraft movements a year, so having the right processes in place is critical," says Nigel.

"Airways and the Minister of Transport have indicated that it may take up to six months to make this change, during which time the CAA will need to review and approve all airport operations.

"There are many steps and approvals which will need to happen in a short timeframe. Now that Airways have given us their decision, we will work closely with Air New Zealand and other users of the airport to confirm that they can and will continue to fly into our airport when the Air Traffic Management process changes," says Nigel.

The changes announced on Tuesday could mean the loss of up to 38 positions with these staff anticipated to leave over the next three to six months. Timings for any redundancies will be confirmed as part of the collaborative process with the airports and CAA. Airways will also work with staff on any redeployment opportunities.

"This decision is a hard one and upsetting for affected workers and their families. Supporting and respecting our workmates is central to who Airways is as a company. Telling people who have served us and our industry so well that the services they provide are no longer viable is very difficult," says Graeme.

"But the disruption caused by the pandemic is unprecedented. Airways must address the immediate challenges of the pandemic-induced crisis, and to help put the industry on a more sustainable footing.

"Maintaining our previous services would have imposed an unjustifiable and unsustainable cost on airline operators without any corresponding benefits in passenger safety or regional connectivity."

Graeme says Air New Zealand had assured his company the changes would not affect the airline’s ability to provide safe passenger and freight services to the cities and regions concerned. He had been heartened by the constructive response of most airport owners and management, and many other stakeholders, to Airways’ decision.

"Our industry partners have been positive about future possibilities in our sector, which was already grappling with reducing traffic volumes and technological advancements before the pandemic hit us."

He says the cross-sector working group, involving airports, CAA and Air New Zealand, was a way of ensuring continued collaboration as the industry worked towards recovery.

"Technological and other developments are enabling alternatives to controlled airspace that are safe, fit-for purpose and commercially viable," says Graeme.

"As our industry and our overall economy recovers and rebuilds, we will continue to work with our aviation colleagues to deliver flexible, efficient and affordable services, that preserve safety and deliver sustainable connectivity in a sector that has been fundamentally reshaped by the pandemic."

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