This story has a New Zealand Press Council ruling below
State-owned air traffic controller Airways New Zealand has complained about Mountain Scene’s March 11 story Tower Trouble.
The complaint is summarised below, along with our replies in italics.
? Airways bristles over sacked air traffic controller Pamela Adams, the story’s prime source, saying: “My personal opinion is, I was sacked because I knew there were safety-related issues at Queenstown.”
While Adams was awarded $8,333 for unjustified dismissal and nine months’ salary, Airways says the Employment Relations Authority ruled she wasn’t fired over safety issues.
Our story should have balanced Adams’s “personal opinion” with ERA’s official view – and to that extent, the paper apologises to Airways. But we have no regrets about publishing this highly-experienced air traffic controller’s strong fears and honestly-held doubts over local air traffic control.
? Airways generally claims Tower Trouble is “inaccurate, unbalanced and biased” and could affect “public confidence in air traffic control”, damaging the SOE’s reputation “by implying … serious safety issues in Queenstown”.
Airways refutes Adams’s claim a “frightening” lack of experience in Queenstown’s tower is causing an increasing number of safety incidents. The SOE says all controllers are certified competent and incidents dropped in 2008-09.
While Mountain Scene accepts controllers are certified, we stress Adams claims incidents increased in the six months before her sacking, not two years. We’ve also sighted correspondence from a senior aviation source early in 2009 signalling an upwards trend in aircraft “Traffic Collision Avoidance System” warnings at Queenstown.
? Airways says Adams’s quote about “the Airline Pilots Association blacklisting Queenstown as a difficult airport” is “incorrect”.
Agreed – “Black-listed” isn’t quite right but her point is rock-solid. The International Federation of Air Line Pilots’ Associations rates Queenstown and Wellington as NZ’s two most difficult airports, labelling them “Black Star – Critically Deficient”. Adams simply warns air traffic standards must be at their highest in places like this.
? Airways contradicts Adams’s claim that “most [local] tower staff haven’t been involved with [Warbirds over Wanaka]”.
We’ve spoken to Adams again – she maintains only three of seven local controllers have previously officially covered Warbirds. During the 2008 Warbirds, the other four controllers weren’t officially rated, she says.
? The SOE takes issue with Adams citing three safety incidents – one she calls a “near-miss” – which Airways allegedly knew about but didn’t investigate. Airways says “near-miss” is “a serious misrepresentation” of this incident – reported by the airline to the Civil Aviation Authority – and our story doesn’t specify the other two incidents so Airways could respond. Airways also points out its processes require all reported incidents to be investigated.
Mountain Scene saw no reason to question a controller of 30 years regarding her term “near-miss”. And citing two other unspecified incidents was simply her way of explaining this wasn’t just a one-off.
? Airways throws in a late protest over an earlier Mountain Scene story on another aviation incident, calling the article “an inflammatory depiction of a standard procedure” and “especially irresponsible reporting [which] reflects badly on Airways’ reputation”.
This January 21 story was uncritical of Airways – and there was no complaint from the SOE at the time – so how it sullies Airways’ reputation beats us. Nevertheless, the story was accurate: a jetliner’s collision alarm went off because it was closing “face to face” on another aircraft about two nautical miles away, an independent pilot eyewitness told us. Airways confirmed the incident, as did the airline, and CAA investigated.
? Adams alleges other air operators and airlines are unhappy about Queenstown air traffic control standards – but Airways maintains a national carrier denies this, as does a local operator.
Tower Trouble quoted CAA saying Airways had been told to “sort out” separation procedures after what CAA described as a tower staffer’s “perceived licence to bend [the] rules”. A week later, a Mountain Scene follow-up quoted an experienced 737 pilot: “Problems in Queenstown aren’t unique from a controller point of view given what I know of under-resourcing and overwork in many of the control towers.”
There’s obviously feeling between Airways and Adams but, combined with CAA verification of Airways’ previous shortcomings in Queenstown air space, Mountain Scene believed Adams’s control tower concerns should be aired – not suppressed – and we still do.
CASE NO: 2122
ADJUDICATION BY THE NEW ZEALAND PRESS COUNCIL ON THE COMPLAINT OF AIRWAYS NEW ZEALAND AGAINST MOUNTAIN SCENE
1. Airways New Zealand (Airways) complains that articles published in Mountain Scene on 11 March, 18 March and 8 April 2010 breached the Council’s principles in respect of accuracy and balance (including omission), comment and fact, corrections and headlines and captions. The complaint is upheld.
2. The first article, a front page article, appeared under the overline and heading:
Sacked air controller fears for safety in the skies
3. The first paragraph of the article read:
A SACKED local air traffic controller claims a “frightening” lack of experience among former colleagues is causing an increasing number of safety incidents at Queenstown Airport.
The article then continues, listing her concerns about safety issues centred on air traffic control at Queenstown Airport.
4. The article refers to the controller’s claim to know of three safety incidents, one of which was a “near miss” that the Airways safety manager knew about but never investigated. The article continued on the second page under another bold heading:
Ex-controller slams tower
5. The second article which appeared on 18 March 2010 was headed:
Pilot rarks up CAA
‘They need to mitigate the threat of a repeat’
This article quoted an Air NZ pilot’s view that the national aviation watchdog was not taking a “loss of separation” incident between two planes in Queenstown seriously enough. The newspaper commented that the pilot’s concern followed its previous story in which the sacked air traffic controller claimed rookie controllers were causing an increasing number of safety incidents at Queenstown. It noted that the controller had succeeded in an unjustifiable dismissal case against Airways. It also noted that Airways had found that there was no loss of separation in the incident complained of but that a Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) investigator noted that the incident should have been reported to CAA.
6. The last article appeared on 8 April 2010 under the heading:
Airways irate over
This article summarised a complaint which Airways had made about the article of 11 March, acknowledged some errors in the 11 March article and sought to justify other comments. It will be necessary to refer more particularly to this article later.
7. The ex-controller had succeeded before the Employment Relations Authority with an unjustifiable dismissal claim against Airways.
8. The basic complaint of Airways is that the articles amount to inaccurate, unbalanced, inflammatory and biased accounts published both in Mountain Scene and online. It is alleged that the inaccuracies and innuendo contained in the articles have the potential to adversely impact the public’s confidence in air traffic control by implying risks to safety that do not exist. Airways says that the publication has caused significant damage to its reputation.
9. A related matter is that Airways claims it spent considerable time speaking to the reporter prior to publication and advised her that she needed to have solid evidence to back up the claim she was making with regard to safety, particularly because the primary source for the claim was a disgruntled ex-employee who was, at the relevant times, involved in proceedings before the Employment Relations Authority (ERA). Airways claims that this advice was ignored and that Mountain Scene acted irresponsibly.
10. A summary of the statements which are allegedly inaccurate and the reason for the alleged inaccuracies is:
(a) “…a frightening lack of experience amongst former colleagues is causing an increasing number of safety incidents at Queenstown Airport – the safety incidents attributable to air traffic control over the period quoted dropped significantly.”
(b) In the six months before I left there’d been an increase in incidents caused by inexperienced controllers. I know this because I investigated half of them – factually incorrect as there were no incidents reported attributable to air traffic control.
(c) An inexperienced crew manning the Queenstown tower is “just as dangerous” as having rookie pilots, she says – no safety data to back up this claim.
(d) …the AirLine Pilots’ Association has black-listed Queenstown as a difficult airport – this is factually incorrect.
(e) Her warning comes two weeks before the annual influx of light aircraft for Warbirds Over Wanaka, which [the ex-controller] says most tower staff haven’t been involved with – most of the current tower staff have experience with the Warbirds Over Wanaka event and the statement is a red herring unrelated to the issue being considered in the article and designed to instill fear in readers.
(f) [The ex-controller] also claims to know of three safety incidents – including a “near miss” between an Air New Zealand plane and a hot air balloon in 2008 – that the Airways Safety Manager knows about but never investigated – factually incorrect as all incidents that are reported are investigated and the Air New Zealand incident was reported to the CAA. The “near miss” is a serious misrepresentation of the facts.
(g) …when a departing Air New Zealand Boeing 737 flew head-on into the smaller plane’s course – this is an inflammatory depiction of a standard procedure and CAA did not refer to either aircraft flying “head on” into “each other”.
(h) There are other people on the [Queenstown] airfield who aren’t happy with the standard of controlling. The airlines are [also] concerned – Air New Zealand denies that this statement represents its views and it was not approached by the newspaper to substantiate the claim.
(i) My personal opinion is I was sacked because I knew there were safety-related issues at Queenstown – a factually incorrect statement the ex-controller did not allege this in her claim to the ERA. Nor did the ERA find that this was the reason for her sacking.
11. The statements referred to in the previous paragraph appeared in the article of 11 March. Although Airways did not follow the correct procedure by complaining to Mountain Scene about comments in the article of 18 March, it included comments from that article in its complaint to this Council. The comments and the summarised reasons for the complaints are:
(a) An Air NZ pilot believes the national aviation watchdog isn’t taking a “loss of separation” incident between two planes in Queenstown seriously enough – the CAA investigation found that no loss of separation occurred and a pilot’s disagreement with this finding does not mean that CAA did not take it “seriously enough”.
(b) The 737 captain, who can’t be named because of a media ban in his contract, says the Civil Aviation Authority should have made recommendations following an air traffic control episode at Queenstown Airport on March 2 last year – the CAA did make a recommendation, as the newspaper acknowledged in an earlier article. It appears that the reason for restating this matter is to increase fear in the community about aviation safety.
(c) The 737 captain, echoing the [ex-controller’s] warning, says the Queenstown tower’s not alone when it comes to concerns about air traffic controllers – “given what I know of the under-resourcing and overwork in many of the control towers around the country” – factually incorrect.
(d) “Human factors are an important element to consider in terms of any given failing of a controller and it seems all too convenient to try to shift the problem onto the individual seemingly responsible – but has it really dealt with the root cause?” – this seemed not to make sense in the context and because material was omitted creates an unbalanced and misleading story.
(e) “The economic drivers are not necessarily complementary to safer skies” – factually incorrect. There is no evidence to show any correlation between the price of air fares and aviation safety.
12. Airways also takes issue with the headlines in the articles of 11 and 18 March, in particular:
(a) The headline and overline of the 11 March article (see above) was factually incorrect to imply that there was “trouble” at the tower. The headline implied chaotic operational and staff management practices to cause readers to conclude that they should be concerned about aviation safety in Queenstown.
(b) The headline of the 8 April article was incorrect. Airways had sent a measured response to Mountain Scene and was not “irate”.
(c) The headline and overline of the 18 March article is factually incorrect. The CAA, after investigation, determined that there was no loss of separation and reclassified the incident as a Non-Reportable Occurrence.
13. Airways also complains about the “corrections” article of 8 April 2010 claiming that in it the editor acted as both judge and jury. The article repeated the inaccuracies and misinformation already published. The following three particular comments were referred to:
(a) …we have no regrets about publishing this highly-experienced air traffic controller’s strong fears and honestly-held doubts over local air traffic control – the newspaper should have substantiated the claims made by the ex-employee, as other media organizations did, and then decided not to publish.
(b) …we stress where [the ex-controller] claims incidents increased in the six months before her sacking, not two years. We’ve also sighted correspondence from a senior aviation source early in 2009 signalling an upward trend in aircraft “Traffic Collision Avoidance System” warnings at Queenstown – factually incorrect.
(c) The article repeats early misinformation contained in the previous articles. In doing so, it suppressed the truth. The earlier articles were factually incorrect.
The Newspaper’s Response
14. It is not necessary to summarise the detailed point-by-point response of Mountain Scene. Its basic position is that it has evidence to back up its March 11 report and the items of dispute. It notes that the ERA decision which led to the first article centred on a confrontation in the tower. It quoted a CAA spokesman who had said that CAA had since told Airways to “sort out” its procedures in relation to this Queenstown tower incident. It also quoted a CAA Aeronautical Services Officer who said:
“There is no question that the incident was reportable [to CAA] because it had the potential to be a hazard, given the controller was technically not applying separation in accordance with the documented procedures.”
15. The first article with its overline clearly showed that it was an opinion from the ex-controller and not a statement of fact. Many of the statements complained of were opinions of the ex-controller. The overline referred to a “sacked air controller” and this invited readers to make a value judgment about her comments. The reference to “sacked” indicated that the ex-controller was “unlikely to be trumpeting the virtues of her former employer”.
Discussion and Decision
16. The complaint and the response omitted information which the Council believed to be important and it therefore requested both parties to answer a series of questions. In the main, the parties agreed on the answers, although there were some discrepancies. The reporter from Mountain Scene phoned a member of Airways the day before the article appeared. The reporter put many of the allegations to Airways and was advised that she should contact CAA/TAIC to back up her claims and seek evidence. The reporter did not take this advice.
17. The Council has repeatedly said that a newspaper should seek a response from a party against whom allegations are being made. This is particularly so if there may be disputed facts and where, as here, a delay in publishing would not have diminished the value of the story. It is also important to obtain balance where a story may alarm a section of the public.
18. On the other hand, an organisation which has allegations against it put to it by a reporter, runs the risk of misreporting if it suggests that the reporter should go to some other organisation to get an answer to the allegations. This appears to have happened here.
19. The story in this case was clearly a matter of public interest and Mountain Scene was entitled to report it. Many of the facts objected to by Airways were clearly statements of opinion from an ex-air controller. Mountain Scene was entitled to publish these opinions and the only issue in this respect is whether it failed to give adequate balance.
20. The first article made serious allegations against Airways. It referred to safety incidents increasing at the airport; a “frightening” lack of experience in the tower; the Airline Pilots’ Association blacklisting the airport; near misses known to Airways which were not investigated; and safety being compromised because of economic drivers.
21. Mountain Scene, in its correction article, acknowledged a lack of balance in respect of the ex-air controller’s opinion on the reason for her being sacked. The Employment Relations Authority decision, which Mountain Scene had, made it clear that her sacking was not related to safety-related issues. Secondly, it acknowledged that the Airline Pilots’ Association had not blacklisted the Queenstown airport. There were other allegations in the article which were not checked by Mountain Scene. Some of the main allegations, however, were put to Airways which did not directly answer them but suggested that the reporter should contact CAA/TAIC. Nevertheless, in some important aspects, balance was lacking. The question is whether the correcting article absolves Mountain Scene.
22. The allegations in the second article were not put to Airways before publication. The article was critical of the CAA and, by implication, Airways Corporation. It repeated some of the allegations made by the ex-controller in the previous article and, in effect, built on them. In the Council’s view, Mountain Scene should have sought balance by putting the new allegations to Airways.
23. The Council does not uphold the complaint on the headlines and overline. In its view, the headline and overline of the first article fairly conveyed the substance of the article and the particular fears of the ex-controller. If Mountain Scene had sought balancing comment, the headline may have been different but was appropriate for the article.
24. The headline of the second article was stronger by including the word “rarks”. However, once again, the Council would not uphold that complaint.
25. The question is whether the correcting article was such that the complaint relating to lack of balance in the first two articles should not be upheld. The newspaper accepted two errors. However, it reiterated its stance on other statements on which it had not sought comment from Airways, namely the staff’s involvement with Warbirds Over Wanaka, the three safety incidents and the fact that other air operators and airlines were unhappy about Queenstown’s air traffic control standards. It had not put this allegation to the airlines.
26. In the Council’s view, the correcting article did not go far enough. In some respects, it reinforced the lack of balance. The tenor of the article, while accepting some errors, clearly restated views on which it had not sought balance.
27. For the reasons given above, the Council upholds the complaint on the grounds of lack of balance. In an article which was likely to inflame views, the newspaper had a responsibility to obtain greater balance even if that meant delaying publication of the article for a week.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Barry Paterson (Chairman), Pip Bruce Ferguson, Ruth Buddicom, Sandy Gill, Penny Harding, Keith Lees, Clive Lind, John Roughan, Lynn Scott and Stephen Stewart.
People with a complaint against a newspaper or magazine should first complain in writing to the editor of the publication and then, if not satisfied with the response, complain to the Press Council. Complaints should be addressed to the Executive Director, P O Box 10 879, The Terrace, Wellington. Phone 473 5220 or 0800 969 357 Information on the Press Council is available at www.presscouncil.org.nz