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Air Traffic Control Closure Sends COVID-19 Shockwaves Through Regional Airports

Air traffic control closure sends COVID-19 shockwaves through regional airports

Seven regional airports are shocked that Airways NZ, the national air traffic management organisation, wants to discuss the removal of air traffic control at their facilities in the wake of COVID-19.

Napier, Gisborne, New Plymouth, Rotorua and Invercargill Airports, and the flight information service at Kapiti Coast and Milford Sound Airports, are reeling at the news their control towers face closure, says the chief executive of the association for New Zealand’s airports (NZ Airports) Kevin Ward.

Airways only advised airports yesterday that, due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, it is considering closing its towers at Napier, Gisborne, New Plymouth, Rotorua and Invercargill Airports, and the flight information service at Kapiti Coast and Milford Sound Airports. Airways provides the services under contract to each airport.

Kevin Ward says serious concerns arise from the proposals. “We obviously understand that changes have to be made to reflect the current, unprecedented, low levels of air traffic. But these seven regions and the whole air transport network are focussing on what needs to be done to emerge quickly and resume flights when restrictions are lifted. This move is deeply concerning because it is so unclear if the Airways plan will cater for anything like a return to some form of normality,” he says.

“A key step has to be to assess the safety impacts of the proposed changes. The Director of Civil Aviation sets the requirements for appropriate levels of air traffic management.

“Good risk assessment processes must apply before any changes are made. Airways’ tower staff are also part of safety management around each airport, and their withdrawal would pose several significant challenges,” says Mr Ward. “What might be safe now, in a highly unusual situation, won’t be a sustainable solution when travel restrictions are lifted.”

Mr Ward says the affected airports are all critical cogs in the economies of their regions – supporting business, tourism, social connections and regional resilience.

“It won’t be acceptable for the airports to be hamstrung by Airways taking a narrow, short-term view. Economic recovery post-COVID-19 is a regional and national priority and air connections will have a major role to play in how we support our regions to bounce back.”

Mr Ward says consultation on the Airways’ proposals has only just started and the association will be making strong representation to the State-owned enterprise on a range of fronts.

“We have to work through the full range of implications, including how medium and longer-term safety and operational requirements will be met, before any final decisions are taken.

“I expect the Government will take an interest, as regional economic recovery is a big part of the special support being provided during the COVID-19 disruptions. Airways has been given $70m in the COVID-19 aviation package to support providing safe air traffic management around the country,” he says.

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