8 Feb 2023

Government hopes for aerospace boom but CAA says inspectors 'overworked'

11:30 am on 8 February 2023
An air taxi flies through a city.

New aircraft like delivery drones, reusable rockets and airtaxis piloted by remote need certification. Photo: 123RF

Inspectors charged with making sure the aerospace industry is safe are so overworked it has been causing them health and safety problems.

This comes from ministerial briefings by the regulators themselves, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Ministry of Transport.

But the industry has warned that international startups were now bypassing New Zealand due to the regulatory logjam.

Companies have been demanding CAA speed up approval for new aircraft such as delivery drones, reusable rockets and airtaxis piloted by remote.

But the agency said the work was complex, expertise was "scarce" and its staff were "overworked".

They faced "increasing hours worked by, and stress on, staff which is creating HSWA [Health and Safety at Work] issues", CAA said in a November briefing.

"Government priorities for emerging technologies exceed the capacity and capability required to deliver successfully on the strategy," it said.

Asked by RNZ on Tuesday if those staff issues were resolved, CAA said "there remains a need to manage work pressure and the impact on our staff".

The Transport Ministry backed CAA's calls for more resources.

"Extra resource is ... required to integrate new types of aviation activity safely into the aviation system and between regulatory systems, in particular the space and high-altitude regulatory system," the ministry told ministers, also in November.

This was despite the government injecting $7 million in September to boost the regulator, CAA.

Aerospace company Merlin said things had not been fixed.

"There seems to be a break in the number of startups coming to New Zealand because we are over capacity regulatory wise," chief executive Shaun Johnson said.

The government on Tuesday said CAA's strategic intent was "to safely adopt new technologies into the aviation system".

Aerospace was a "priority" and staff at a new emerging technology unit had been doubled from three to six, it said.

The three briefings were the most recent that the group of 'aerospace ministers' - Associate Transport Minister Kieran McAnulty, Research, Science and Innovation Minister Ayesha Verrall and Economic Development Minister Stuart Nash - have had.

The ministry told them about "tensions" between companies and inspectors, that CAA was working to resolve.

The government was hoping for an aerospace boom, helped along by the fact that New Zealand's aviation regulatory system was closely aligned with international systems.

But the queue at CAA has been growing, with at least 20 companies wanting to test, or sell, new products.

Civil Aviation "recognises this nascent sector is highly dependent on sound regulatory decisions made in an efficient and effective way", the ministry said.

"There is no silver bullet available to address the issues associated with the complexities and expected speed of decision making for emerging aviation technologies, given the current resource and workforce constraints."

Even the sector itself, according to one briefing, said the hurdles included aerospace companies that "consume countless CAA inspector hours through ill prepared email inquiries, meeting requests, and more recently, complaints about the CAA's inability to respond to their requests".

The ministry said the ministers had asked for action but the "key risk for each action is resourcing".

"We have previously advised you on the resource and funding constraints."

'Very negative effect'

Civil Aviation had the equivalent of just one staffer in emerging tech till recently, the briefings show. Now its new unit was expanding, recruiting people with the right skills was expected to be difficult.

CAA was also doing more handling of applications for approvals digitally.

Three companies - Merlin, Dawn and Kea - had begun working with CAA on setting up a joint design and certification organisation to help out, the briefings said.

Merlin chief executive Shaun Johnson said this showed the industry did not just talk about problems, but "are coming with solutions".

"But fundamentally the resourcing issue is still having a very negative effect," Johnson said.

"We need the government to step up."

Asked on Tuesday if extra resources had been received, and if health and safety problems had been resolved, CAA did not say.

It was "conscious of the workload placed on our staff" due to complex work and a limited pool of experts, it said.

The pressure was from significant growth in emerging technologies and Covid recovery efforts, it added.

"Additional funding does make a difference but there remains a need to manage work pressure and the impact on our staff.

"Supporting the emerging aviation technology sector in New Zealand is a priority for this government.

Transport Minister Michael Wood said the $6.7m boost for aerospace came alongside another $9m for research partnerships with NASA.

These moves came well before the officials' warnings in the briefings.

CAA had a new website to help with aerospace applications.

"This will help the CAA understand what applicants are looking to achieve, so the CAA can direct them toward the most relevant guidance, industry standards, and appropriate certification pathways," Wood said.

The agency had added three project advisors to its new unit.

"Collectively these steps will help CAA keep pace with the rapid technology developments."

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