Temporary Easter flight ban at Q’town Airport ‘came without warning’

An Aucklander who regularly flies in and out of Queenstown Airport is appalled he couldn’t fly his stepson to Dunedin for an urgent medical specialist’s appointment over Easter.

Blair Huston, who’d been staying in Wānaka, says he only knew at 7am on Easter Saturday he’d need to fly his Queenstown-based Cessna 182.

He’d planned to leave with his special-needs 10-year-old stepson at 11am.

However, when doing his pre-flight checks, he found a ‘NOTAM’ — ‘notice to airmen’ — advising the airport had banned non-pre-approved
itinerant flying that weekend.

That was due to concerns Airways’ air traffic controllers would be under extra stress due to the huge Warbirds Over Wānaka air show.

Huston says he’d had no prior warning, through either any earlier NOTAMs or any of the ‘‘myriad’’ of channels that news could have been conveyed to pilots like him.

He then tried unsuccessfully to convince either Airways or the airport to let him fly out, even though he says the airfield wasn’t busy.

‘‘I told Queenstown Airport management it was a flight to run someone down to the hospital.

‘‘They said if it was an emergency then I should raise it as such.

‘‘It wasn’t a life-or-death situation, we just wanted to get a youngster to see a specialist at Dunedin Hospital.’’

‘I’ve never heard of it closing’

Prevented from flying, Huston says his partner in stead drove his stepson to Dunedin, however they arrived too late for their appointment, and had to see someone else the next day.

Grounded: Queenstown Airport and Airways wouldn’t allow Blair Huston to use his Cessna to fly his stepson to Dunedin for a medical appointment over Easter

In an email to an Airways manager, he states: ‘‘You not letting us depart at 11am on Saturday cost my partner and me 16 hours of driving
and $2000 in air tickets [out of Dunedin]’’ — his partner had to pop back to Wānaka to pick up something during their Dunedin stay.

Huston stresses he has no beef with Queenstown airport’s tower controllers themselves — ‘‘they are fantastic under pressure and very professional and accommodating’’.

He adds: ‘‘The airport has been open to general aviation to come and go for a long time, and in my 22 years of flying in and out of there regularly, I’ve never heard of it [closing].’’

He says he was told by authorities he should have checked his NOTAMs in advance — ‘‘but I didn’t know I was going to be flying that

Besides, he argues, NOTAMs are just one of many ways the airport’s Easter flying restrictions could have been communicated.

‘Not a ban on private aircraft’

Todd Grace, Queenstown Airport Corporation’s (QAC) chief operating officer, says the NOTAM requiring pre-approval over Easter for itinerant pilots, wasn’t a ban on general aviation or private aircraft.

Instead, it was ‘‘just a request for pre-approval to ensure the safe operation of the airfield and airways’’.

The NOTAM, issued February 28, ‘‘enabled QAC and Airways to manage the number of requests for itinerant general aviation parking, and to support safe arrivals and departures across each day, particularly during the busy periods’’.

Grace says this type of NOTAM is rare, and only likely to be issued when air traffic’s anticipated to be much higher than usual.

‘‘The NOTAM advised hospital flights were excluded from pre-approval, and provided the contact details for QAC air operations who were able to escalate any requests, if required.’’

Huston, however, says he was frustrated when a QAC staffer wouldn’t give him their safety manager’s email.

An Airways spokesperson says early indications were there’d be very high numbers of general aviation operators in and around Queenstown over Easter.

‘‘Airways requested the airport implement capacity management measures to support continued safe and efficient operations over the long weekend.

‘‘The restriction implemented by Queenstown Airport required itinerant general aviation pilots … to have prior approval from the airport
to operate between the busiest expected period of 10am to 5pm.’’

NOTAMs, the spokesperson adds, are an established international system for communicating up-to-date, essential flight planning info to pilots.

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