5 Mar 2024

'Compromised': Airline says Ōhakea's staffing woes puts commercial flights at risk

6:49 pm on 5 March 2024
Emirates Airbus A380 shown landing at London Heathrow International Airport LHR / EGLL in England, UK over the residential area of Myrtle Avenue.

An Emirates Airbus 380. Photo: AFP / Nicolas Economou / NurPhoto

A shortage of rescue and firefighting service workers at the Air Force's Base Ōhakea has "compromised" the viability of a commercial giant's services to New Zealand, an airline has warned.

RNZ has obtained a copy of a letter Emirates sent then-Transport Minister Michael Wood in May last year warning him about the situation.

Ōhakea, about 30 kilometres northwest of Palmerston North, is an important airport for commercial flights. They nominate it as an alternative landing destination, under an Operation Alternate agreement, should their planned destination - Auckland or Christchurch airports - be unavailable for reasons such as flooding or an emergency on the ground.

Commercial flights must nominate such alternatives around the globe.

Operators pay for the alternative arrangements, but Ōhakea is not a 24-7 option due to problems with rescue and firefighting staff retention.

This means flights using larger aircraft headed to Auckland must nominate Christchurch as their alternative when Ōhakea isn't available, and vice versa, but this comes with extra cost, potentially affecting the viability of services.

Although there is light at the end of the tunnel - the Defence Force says it is training new personnel who should start work in two months, restoring Ōhakea's 24-7 capability.

Other airports are not suitable for larger planes.

On 11 May 2023, Emirates' chief commercial officer Adnan Kazim wrote to Wood about services the airline flew to Auckland and Christchurch via Sydney using Airbus 380 aircraft.

"I am writing to bring to your attention a critical issue affecting Emirates' flights to New Zealand, which is causing significant operational inefficiencies and compromising the economic viability of these routes."

Kazim wrote that Emirates had to change nominated alternative airports to Auckland and Christchurch, instead of Ōhakea.

He said since the resumption of the Airbus flights in December 2022, Ōhakea was unavailable totally for 41 days and, as at May last year, had identified a further 70 days when it was not available.

Some of his letter, released under the Official Information Act, was withheld, but Kazim wrote that such services had brought significant value to travellers to and from New Zealand for almost two decades.

"I would request that you elevate this issue at the Ministry of Defence for a resolution on an urgent basis, please."

Information released to RNZ from the ministry showed Ōhakea was unavailable as an alternative airport with the required 'category seven' rating on just one day in 2021, but 163 days in 2022. Last year it was only unavailable once, but for the other 355 days operated at reduced hours, ranging from two to 10 hours a day.

This year, it had been available every day, but for only for nine hours a day from 6am.

Emirates referred RNZ to the Board of Airline Representatives New Zealand. Its executive director, Cath O'Brien, said she was constantly raising with officials the issue of Ōhakea's availability.

She acknowledged the Defence Force's work in recent months to recruit and train more rescue and firefighter service staff, but said the issue was important for New Zealand as large aircraft had found it more difficult to nominate Ōhakea as their alternative destinations.

"If an airline, for example bound for Auckland, nominates Christchurch instead of Ōhakea, they carry something like an additional six tonnes of aviation fuel, which will burn something like 2.5t of carbon.

"To carry that extra weight of fuel will then require them to be lighter in other respects. That means they are also probably carrying less cargo for New Zealand and they are also probably carrying fewer passengers.

"If an airline is facing commercial limitation over a long period of time, that will damage the route's commercial success."

She said New Zealand's tourism market was recovering after Covid-19, and was back to about 80 percent of where it was.

"We need to be making ourselves the best possible destination for long-haul carriers.

"At the moment Ōhakea is available through the hours of the daytime, seven days a week. That's been hard won and with a lot of effort from everybody to get to that point, but we still don't have availability in the afternoon or evening."

Ōhakea base commander Group Captain Peter Gibson said officials were working to upgrade its status to 24-7 capability "through internal and external recruitment, training and reallocation of staff from within the New Zealand Defence Force".

"Six personnel are currently scheduled to complete overseas training within the next two months. This will lift category seven to 24-7 status."

The restoration of the required fire and rescue services would allow commercial airlines to nominate Ōhakea as their alternative airport at all times.

Gibson said training required for large wide-body international passenger aircraft could only be provided by organisations external to the Defence Force and relied upon availability.

In further correspondence released to RNZ, Board of Airline Representatives New Zealand aviation development manager Patrick Whelan raised the issue with the Defence Force in January 2023. Whelan said Emirates was affected by the then lack of availability at weekends.

"Looking ahead, [Emirates] are considering options. From February onwards, [it] plans to restrict 60 seats from sale per flight. This will impact the commercial viability of the weekend services, putting them at risk."

Ōhakea's then-base commander Group Captain Robert Shearer replied, saying it regretted the base was not available as an alternative over weekends because of a lack of "fire command and control senior qualified personnel", and that he would elevate the issue.

However, attrition among "this strategically significant trade means we need to prioritise the support to military air operations and, indeed, the welfare, training and career development of our RFS [rescue and firefighting] personnel".

This was reiterated by Chief of Defence Force, Air Marshal Kevin Short, in a reply to Emirates.

Short said the shortage of rescue and firefighting personnel was compounded by Auckland and Christchurch airports increasing their staff, furthering competition among a limited field of workers.

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