Air of concern


Pilots’ union boss says airport safety could be compromised.

With an airline price war looming and night flights inching closer, industry experts are voicing new safety concerns over Queenstown’s Black Star-rated airport.

New Zealand pilots’ union boss Mark Rammell fears “there will be commercial pressure with more jet aeroplanes operating into Queens­town” that could compromise safety.

Rammell, president of the NZ Air Line Pilots’ Association (ALPA), says his organisation will fight commercially-inspired moves to introduce night flights and to lower the height at which aircraft can ‘fly blind’ using computer-based technology.

This week budget Aussie airline Jetstar announced it will replace Qantas domestic services with larger-carrying aircraft, sparking predictions of a price war with Air NZ.

Following Air NZ’s lead, Jetstar will equip its Airbus 320s with GPS-based ‘required navigation performance’ (RNP) systems later this year. This allows the planes to fly pre-programmed tracks be­­-tween Queens­­town Airport’s surround­­­­­ing moun­­­­­­­­­­­­tains during low or no visibility.

A senior Air NZ pilot, who can’t be identified due to his employment contract, told Mountain Scene last week he’s concerned over commercial pressure “to operate in and out in bad weather which is facilitated by the RNP approaches on a very short runway”.

“And then they want to add night operations into the mix.”

He adds: “I think there is a significant level of concern and trepidation regarding the RNP approa­­­ch­­es in general in certain weather conditions and even more so at lower minima and at night.”

Union boss Rammell says ALPA supports RNP as “an extremely accurate navigation system to allow you to follow what would otherwise have been an impossible flight path in cloud”.

But his organisation would be upset at any moves to lower the above-ground height the navigation system operates at in Queenstown, from about 1400 feet to only 300ft.

“This is where Queenstown in our view has a problem, and a serious problem.”

He’s concerned at planes flying dangerously low in bad weather amidst mountainous terrain.

For a similar reason, ALPA’s opposed to Queenstown Airport Corporation plans to introduce night flights, principally to allow after-dark ski flights from Australia.

Rammell: “Your whole perception, your peripheral vision is different at night, and the runway environment and airport at Queenstown is different.”

The senior pilot who spoke to Mountain Scene says he’s concerned about night flights “because of the proximity of high terrain and inadequate airport approach lighting”.

And Rammell adds: “You’re not going to get approach lighting off one end [of the runway] because there’s a bloody cliff there.”

He says lower RNP minima and night flying are also unacceptable because the 1911m runway is too short and too narrow.

To meet Civil Aviation Authority requirements by 2011, QAC has this week put its case for a 90m “runway end safety area” (RESA) over the Shotover Delta, to stop aircraft under- or over-shooting.

Rammell repeats ALPA’s stance that there should be 240m RESAs at both ends of the runway.

He accepts that’s physically impossible, but says QAC should have looked at a runway arrester system that has the same effect over a shorter distance.

QAC chairman Mark Taylor says night flights would be convenient during the ski season when effectively there’s only about a four-hour window trans-Tasman jets can land in.

It is unlikely night flying would be allowed till the RESA’s in place, he admits.

“There are plenty of airports that operate in darkness, in difficult conditions, it just requires protocols of appropriate operational procedures to allow it to happen.”

Rammell confirms Queenstown Airport still has a Black Star rating from ALPA’s international parent body, meaning it’s “particularly deficient” in one way or another, and pilots “need to be extremely careful”.


DQ boss says questions still remain over seat capacity

New Destination Queenstown boss Stephen Pahl questions whether Jetstar will consistently be able to run its bigger jets at full capacity.

The Aussie budget airline this week announced that from June 10 it will fly a 177-seat Airbus into the resort to replace the 136-seat Boeing 737 flown by parent company Qantas.

It will run the same schedule as Qantas but lift seat capacity per week from 1920 to 2487.

“I am jumping for joy at increased seats,” Pahl says.

“But how often will it run at full capacity?”

He says the problem is a 72.5 tonne payload limit on a short runway which sometimes means jets can’t take off fully loaded.

He still accepts more seats per plane is a gain but was keen to discuss the issue with Jetstar executives today.

Jetstar boss Bruce Buchanan this week told Mountain Scene Queenstown is one of the “most technically complex airports in the world to get into”.

Jetstar would upgrade its planes to RNP technology later in the year: “That will mean we’re not as exposed to the weather and other issues.”