The Kawarau Jet boat fatality in Queenstown in 2008
Transport regulators are running for cover following revelations scores of safety improvements are in limbo – many relating to serious Queenstown accidents.
The website of the Government’s Transport Accident Investigation Commission, New Zealand’s supreme accident inspectorate, lists 166 outstanding safety recommendations dating back to 1993.
“This means a recommendation has been assigned to an organisation and hasn’t been implemented,” TAIC’s website explains.
Many unactioned recommendations relate to fatal accidents.
To spur regulators and operators into action, TAIC is launching a new watchlist. This will publicise “safety issues or recommendations previously highlighted which have had insufficient attention paid to them”, TAIC’s website says.On safety recommendations generally, TAIC says: “It’s important recommendations are implemented without delay to help prevent similar accidents or incidents in the future.”
Maritime NZ and the Civil Aviation Authority are likely candidates for TAIC’s watchlist – 108 outstanding recommendations sit with these regulators.
TAIC chief investigator Tim Burfoot couldn’t recall offhand how many recommendations are still outstanding but he agrees it’s a lot.
We’ll be the judge – CAA
The Civil Aviation Authority admits to picking and choosing which TAIC safety recommendations to adopt.
“CAA does not always accept recommendations or meet them precisely as they are made,” CAA lawyer Sam Jennings tells Mountain Scene in a prepared statement.
“This is because CAA, through its regulatory role, has significant expertise on aviation matters in the context of the wider aviation regulatory system,” Jennings says.
Jennings says CAA assesses TAIC recommendations on various criteria, including CAA work that is already under way or planned, plus resourcing, technical, regulatory and practical factors.
“In practice, CAA may accept the intent of a recommendation and carry out a great deal of work in response – but as this work is not exactly as recommended by TAIC, the recommendation may remain open,” he says.
Nevertheless, Jennings says, since Mountain Scene raised the question of the outstanding safety recommendations, CAA has been meeting TAIC to work through the long list on the latter’s website.
“A large number of those recommendations are no longer open and need to be removed from the ‘outstanding’ list,” Jennings claims.
CAA originally volunteered to give Mountain Scene updated specific comment on each uncompleted TAIC recommendation in time for this story – but then asked for more time.
“The process involved in creating a response for you has been far more time-intensive than first considered,” Jennings says.
Mountain Scene hopes to publish CAA updates next week on outstanding recommendations stemming from TAIC’s Queenstown investigations.
Some older recommendations have probably been superceded, he says, and others possibly actioned “but the regulator hasn’t presented the information to us”.
Other recommendations – like a major overhaul of jetboating dating from 1999 – have had a lot of work but are still tagged ‘outstanding’ because they’re not yet fully complete, Burfoot says.
Mountain Scene compiled from TAIC’s website a catalogue of 14 Queenstown accidents or incidents with 36 related safety improvements outstanding – then checked their status with TAIC marine and aviation investigators.
The marine investigator confirms his group of safety re-commendations all remain incomplete.
However, his aviation counterpart advised three Queenstown-related recommendations had been actioned but TAIC’s website wasn’t updated.
Without powers of enforcement, TAIC relies on persuading regulators and operators to heed its recommendations.
Burfoot says regulators and operators are kept fully in the loop during TAIC investigations.
“We raise safety issues and we work with various parties to get them to take action themselves.”
TAIC only makes recommendations as a last resort if the regulator or operator hasn’t taken appropriate safety actions themselves.
Burfoot cuts regulators some slack on how long it can take for safety recommendations to be implemented – sometimes years, he says.
However, he confesses to some frustration “over historical recommendations which are still open”.
TAIC makes a telling comment in a 2009 safety recommendation issued to CAA: “The continued lack of any formalised pilot mountain-flying training…has been implicit in a number of fatal mountain-flying accidents over the past 15 years with at least 29 lives lost.”
Burfoot confirms this same re-commendation had previously been made by TAIC but wasn’t actioned by CAA.
It’s been implemented now but shouldn’t have taken so long, he believes.
“In more recent years, the regulators have been very proactive, we’re working together really well with them.”
TAIC’s new watchlist will make regulators like CAA or Maritime even more proactive, Burfoot hopes.
We’ve been too busy with Rena – Maritime
Maritime New Zealand mainly blames last October’s Rena disaster for the marine regulator not implementing scores of TAIC safety recommendations.
"Work related to the Rena grounding has recently had a major impact on resources and therefore the prioritisation of other work," maritime services manager Sharyn Forsyth says.
TAIC recommendations are usually reviewed quarterly and work scheduled on them, she adds.
Other reasons for TAIC recommendations remaining uncompleted include what Forsyth calls "rule development" – which is delaying a number of TAIC safety initiatives, including jetboat driver licensing, she admits.
"Rule development can take considerable time."
“We’d definitely like to see operators and regulators taking a lot of safety actions without our input – that’s how the system’s supposed to work.
“The regulator’s supposed to monitor the safety of the industry,” he says.