Council managers who oversee small local airfields need to ensure they have detailed information at hand in the event of an incident. Current health and safety regulations may require many of them to improve their data collection and monitoring. On the plus side, better data could bring in better revenues too.
Harvey Lockie’s family operates West Auckland Airport Parakai. The airport, he says, is similar in size to most council-owned airfields. And many of these fall within a grouping of 75 or so small airfields dotted throughout the country that have no staff on-site, no air traffic control: just a local contractor coming in every few weeks to cut the grass.
There are often only rough estimates of how many aircraft are using these smaller airports.
Harvey says this was “never really satisfactory” as it was hard to handle compliance, complaints and cost recovery.
“But with increasing health and safety obligations, in the event of an incident it is hard to show that all practicable steps were being taken to safeguard people when there is little reliable information on who used it, when or why.”
Harvey says most councils have at least one such small airfield. They form part of the emergency infrastructure of the district, and the responsibility – along with that for many other amenities – falls to the council properties manager.
“They’re very versatile people but they often find this a challenge as hardly any of them have an aviation background, so they’re uncertain what the opportunities and challenges are, or what their responsibilities are.”
Harvey, who is also technical manager Aimm Airport Movement Monitoring at Aerodrome IT Systems, says the recent earthquakes in the Kaikoura region showed the important role that small country airfields play in the country’s emergency infrastructure.
“When Kaikoura was cut off by the earthquakes, helicopters attended to the urgent problems,” he says. “But they’re not well suited to heavy lifting on a big scale.”
Kaikoura Airfield is a small country airfield mostly used for whale watching flights and by light aircraft passing along the coast and stopping for fuel.
After the earthquake the airfield traffic expanded greatly with tonnes of freight brought in economically by fixed-wing planes. A scheduled passenger service was quickly set up, with small planes able to use Kaikoura’s runway.
Further south, Rangiora Airfield, mostly used for training and recreational flying, saw a substantial increase in air traffic as it is the closest airfield where road links were not affected.
Harvey says it is important for the community that airfields are well maintained and able to handle a surge in traffic.
And therein lies the rub. According to Harvey, if the council owns the land on which the airfield is based, it also carries responsibility for the airfield.
“Under current health and safety regulations it is no longer enough to just ‘leave it to the aero club’. As landowner, the council must ensure the airfield is managed appropriately and be able to show that ‘all practicable steps’ are being taken to reduce risk to pilots, contractors and the public.”
He says many aero clubs do a good job with the day-to-day management. “For this to work council must have a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with them that clearly states the duties of each party, and you need to check occasionally that they are following that.”
There is also a requirement to be able to report annually to the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) the number and types of aircraft movements.
Harvey says estimates are often wrong by a multiple of two or three. “We’ve seen airfields where the actual usage was 10 times the estimate, which does not look good if there is an incident.
“With the computing power now available, systems are available to report accurate movement data at very low cost.”
Harvey notes that some councils are happy to subsidise their airfields as an amenity for ratepayers and as emergency infrastructure. Others aim for cost neutrality, while some want to generate a surplus.
“Whatever the policy you’re working under, it is hard to show you’re meeting the policy objectives if you don’t have hard data about what is actually happening.”
He adds that many council-owned airfields charge an annual fee for unlimited landings for their regular flyers such as local top dressers, resident aircraft or an aero club. A fixed annual fee is often the most efficient way to handle it, so long as you do know what the actual usage is.
“One airfield owner who recently took an accurate sample of aircraft movements, found the flying school was still on the annual fee set many years ago. The sample showed aircraft movements had gradually crept up, giving an effective landing fee of 30c per training session,” he says. “It’s not what they wanted.”
This article was first published in the July 2017 issue of NZ Local Government Magazine.