[b:5958aa3098]Airport puts '65,000 lives at risk'
02 June 2006

The lives of 65,000 people are at risk each year because Taupo airport is one of the most dangerous in the world, airline pilots say.

The airport has been given the worst possible rating by the International Federation of Airline Pilots Associations, who say safety at the airport is "critically deficient".

Pilots' gravest concern was the lack of air traffic control. The association said this should be established immediately as the number and variety of aircraft using the airport increased the risk of a midair collision.

Their union has warned members against using the airport.

The claims have heaped more pressure on the embattled Civil Aviation Authority, which rejected a recommendation by its own staff in a 2004 report on the airport that a flight information service ? a limited form of air traffic control ? was vital.

But Civil Aviation Authority director John Jones said at the time the service would not be cost effective. The rejection angered the safety study staff, who believed the public was being put at risk.

"Failure to endorse the major safety recommendation of the study team would expose the director to a level of risk that would be difficult to defend in the event of an incident at Taupo that might have been mitigated by an (information service). We believe your recommendation would place the travelling public and aviation participants at risk and would be indefensible in a Coroners Court," study team leader Len Wicks wrote in an internal memo.

An authority spokesman said yesterday that its position had not changed.

But Transport Minister Annette King said Mr Jones should front up and explain why the authority was still refusing to install a limited form of air traffic control at Taupo.

There was little the Government could do, however, as he had statutory independence from the Government and his own board.

New Zealand Airline Pilots Association president Mark Rammell said people flying in or out of Taupo airport were "putting their lives at risk".

The crash last year that killed three people when a charter flight flew into a hill while attempting to land, could have been avoided if there had been air traffic control.

"Unless air traffic controls are established there is a real risk of further deaths, and if and when that happens, Taupo's multimillion-dollar tourism industry could be seriously damaged," Mr Rammell said.

Pilots were speaking out because their concerns had not been listened to and action needed to be taken.

The union has warned its nearly 1100 New Zealand airline pilot members against flying to Taupo and issued a list of 11 "special operating procedures" they should follow for all flights to the airport.

No other airport in the world has such a long list of special operating procedures.

Umtata airport in South Africa is the next highest with five.

Taupo is the 10th busiest airport in the country, and one of the busiest provincial aerodromes, accounting for some 43,000 flight movements ? more than Napier, Dunedin, or Invercargill, all of which have air traffic control.

Mrs King said she was concerned about the issues raised by the union and would raise them when she met authority board chairman Ron Tannock on Tuesday.

Airlines and operators at the airport have dismissed the pilots' claims, saying the procedures in place ensured safety and an air traffic control service was not required.

General manager of Air New Zealand's Eagle Air, Doug Roberts, said the airline had been flying to Taupo for several decades without incident.

Taupo Air Charter manager Arthur Whitehead said he had operated out of Taupo for 25 years without problems.

Present safety requirements for pilots and sky-dive operators were more than adequate, he said.

Wellington airport also carries a safety warning because of the lack of safety runoff areas at either end of its runway. Safety zones are now being built.