Queenstown Airport’s night-time curfew was flouted last year because the control tower, an airport staffer and the airline didn’t think it was important enough.
Melbourne-bound Jetstar flight JQ220 took off 13 minutes after the 10pm cut-off on May 20.
A redacted transcript of the conversation between the control tower and pilot has now been released by Airways – excerpts of which can be seen below. That’s after we complained to the Ombudsman over its refusal to do so under the Official Information Act.
It shows the curfew – a condition of the airport’s resource consent – was seen to be “just for local council only” and “nothing to do with CAA or any of the Airways rules”.
The condition is a way to mitigate the impact of evening flights on the community.
But a report into the 2017 incident states staff that night didn’t fully grasp the importance of the relationship between the curfew and the airport’s relationship with the community, in particular, its neighbours.
It also revealed a security guard gave the final clearance from Queenstown Airport Corporation to the tower.
Airport ops boss Mike Clay, who was acting CEO at the time, says manuals have been rewritten and he’s “pretty confident” there won’t be another repeat of the incident, which earned the airport a “caution” from the council.
“Certainly [it was] a pretty big event and so everyone was very, very aware of the situat-ion. It certainly caused a reaction that we certainly didn’t want.”
Weather had affected operations on May 20, which had run-on effects for flight JQ220 with 99 passengers on board. The plane landed late, had a slow turn-around, needed to be de-iced and had a problem with push-back.
After the pilot asked the tower to confirm the curfew requirements at 9.54pm, confusion reigned.
The pilot contacted Jetstar head office, while the air traffic controller who, an incident report says, “appeared not to understand the significance of a council curfew”, asked the airport’s rescue fire and terminal ops teams for help.
The curfew’s set out in three different places in the Aeronautical Information Publication (AIP) – which everyone but the duty manager had access to. It’s also in the airports Aerodrome Operation Manual, and pilot route manuals.
Rescue fire initially referred the controller to the airport duty manager, then went through the AIP and confirmed the curfew meant wheels had to be up by 10pm.
But that happened after the DM had given the nod to let the flight leave.
The final call to the tower was answered by a security guard who maintained QAC’s position and gave flight clearance.
Clay says the airport’s since “articulated” the curfew clearly in all documents, “so it’s much harder for there to be any confusion around what’s required”.
It’s also written to airlines, retrained management staff and made an “escalation flow chart” so when “technical, non-standard issues” arise there’s a clear chain of command.
Clay says the security guard was “trying to be helpful” and picked up the duty phone earlier than the start of their normal shift, but that won’t happen again.
“It’s absolutely clear now that the duty managers don’t hand over the duty phone until the absolute end of their operational shift and that’s when all flights are on the ground and all people have been deplaned of the aircraft.”
Airways initially refused the OIA request made last July, as it was concerned it could discourage people from reporting events openly.
Queenstown Airport Corporation recently paused its plans to extend its noise boundaries after outcry from residents.
EXCERPTS OF TOWER TRANSCRIPT
JST220: “JST220 looks like we’ve missed curfew. We’ve been advised by [inaudible].”
QTN TWR: “JST220 roger, the airport company just got in contact with me and said they’re happy to let you go regardless and I don’t have any airspace or CAA rules that require you to do this, I don’t think [redacted]. I don’t know if you want to risk it.”
JST220: “Standby, we’ll speak to company first. Can you just repeat exactly what you said again?”
QTN TWR: “I’ve just been in touch with the Queenstown Airport Company [sic] and they’ve said that they’re happy to let you go. [Redacted].”
QTN TWR: “I’m just looking through the AIP. The only thing I can find is that it’s a council consented hours of operation between 0600 and 2200 LMT, ah nothing to do with CAA or any of the Airways rules.”
JST220: “OK, so that’s just for local council only?”
QTN TWR: “That’s correct in terms of their resource consent, things like that, however, um, Queenstown Airport Company, who I’ve been in touch with have said they’re happy to let you go anyway.”
JST220: “OK, understood, we are just going to seek clarification from the company first before we do anything, just to make sure.”
JST220: “On behalf of all [inaudible] thank you very much … We’ve been given approval from Melbourne, from all of our departments, so just to confirm, sir, you’re good for all of us if we’re given approval from the department in the next ten minutes?”
QTN TWR: “JST220 affirm the Queenstown Airport Company are happy to let you go and there’s nothing stopping you from an Airways point of view, we have no rules, and if you’ve got company approval to go, then I guess that’s all the major factors.”
Runway cleared for take-off.
Flight JQ220 takes off.