Pilots’ angst at Queenstown night flights


Airline pilots’ discomfort at Queenstown’s night flights will be thrust into the spotlight today as the town’s airport company announces details of multimillion dollar infrastructure work.

Flights to Queenstown in the hours of darkness are expected to start next winter, after the New Zealand and Australian civil aviation authorities approved, in principle, the safety case in May last year.

The Queenstown Airport Corporation has called a press conference this morning at which it is expected to reveal details of preparatory work for the flights – including runway widening and lighting.

The airport’s extended hours have been hailed as a game changer for the airport, which is 75.1 per cent owned by the Queenstown Lakes District Council.

However, some pilots already refuse to fly to the resort because of concerns about its runway and mountainous approaches.

Today, the prospect of night flights will produce a public relations clash, as a pilots’ union has refused to join a supportive statement from an airline.

New Zealand Air Line Pilots’ Association technical officer David Reynolds says it was approached by an airline, which he did not name, to be part of a joint statement to say it had been working on the safety case for night flights and welcomed the prospect of extended operations.

“We declined,” he says.

“We will put out our own statement.

“We don’t believe that we’ve been consulted and we’re certainly not happy with the safeguards which are in place.”

Reynolds says the procedures for landing and departing through the mountainous terrain at the airport do not conform to international safety standards.

Also, the safety areas at each end of the main runway are not 240 metres long, he said, and the airport did not intend to build an internationally approved “arresting” system.

The runway is “non standard”, he says. It does not conform to international airworthiness standards because it is too narrow.

“There are currently pilots who will not fly into Queenstown at this stage because they’re unhappy with the procedures and we already know that there are pilots who do not wish to fly into Queenstown at night.”

Asked about the pilots’ discomfort, Queenstown Airport Corporation general manager of operations Mike Clay says: “You’ll have to approach the individual airlines and ask them why that is.

“We operate a compliant runway, we get regular inspections and audits from Civil Aviation Authority.”

He says the airport’s 90m safety areas comply with Civil Aviation Authority and international requirements, which demand 90m minimum but 240m where practicable.

“Given the geography of our runway – with the Shotover River at one end and residential housing at the other – it’s not practicable to put 240m in there.

“It’s not an uncommon situation in New Zealand or globally.”

Airlines in New Zealand and Australia are working on their safety case for night flights to Queenstown, which then have to be submitted to the relevant regulator.

In May, the association sent a formal letter to Queenstown’s airport company demanding patch up work on the main runway, which was rutting and breaking up.

The problems were caused by the narrow runway, frequent flights and heavier planes.

Mr Clay says the airport company was part way through asphalting about 2800sqm of the runway – work costing hundreds of thousands of dollars – when the letter was received.

It was a bumper winter at Queenstown airport. There were more than half a million passenger movements – 514,397 to be exact – up 11.3 per cent on the 2014 winter.

Otago Daily Times