Ohakea airforce base trains up staff for round-the-clock fire and rescue services

8:07 pm on 14 May 2024
Emergency trucks seen at Ohakea airforce base, Manawatū.

Although fire and rescue personnel are trained for commercial flights, there are no air traffic controllers on duty at Ohakea between 10pm and 5.30am. Photo: RNZ / Jimmy Ellingham

A full roster of trained fire and rescue staff at Ohakea airforce base has commercial airliners sighing with relief.

However, large carriers still cannot nominate it as an alternative destination 24 hours a day if Auckland or Christchurch is unavailable because of a lack of air traffic controllers overnight.

Ohakea, about 30km from Palmerston North, is vital for commercial flights into New Zealand.

Board of Airline Representatives New Zealand executive director Cath O'Brien said it was a role which went back decades to when commercial international aviation began in New Zealand.

"Ohakea is a really important alternate airport for New Zealand," she said about arrangements covered under an Operation Alternate agreement.

"An alternate airport is an airport for aircraft to nominate when they're going somewhere else. For example, an aircraft going to Auckland can nominate Ohakea as an alternate airport to land at should Auckland become unavailable."

Every flight has to name an alternative site in case it cannot land at its primary destination.

Large international flights heading to Auckland must list Christchurch as their alternative when Ohakea is not available, and vice versa.

The three airports are the only ones in New Zealand with runways long enough for jumbo jets - Ohakea's is about 2.5km.

However, for the past few years, Ohakea did not have enough trained fire and rescue staff to be on hand 24/7 should a jet need to land.

Earlier this year, it was only available for this from 6am until about 3pm.

But, since new, trained personnel came on board in late March, Ohakea has provided the required level of fire and rescue staff around the clock.

"To have Ohakea available 24/7 for nomination in terms of rescue and fire availability is fantastic. It's a really great thing for commercial airlines and it means we've got options when we plan journeys to New Zealand," O'Brien said.

Those options are important - earlier this year Checkpoint obtained a letter Emirates sent to then-Transport Minister Michael Wood in 2023. The airline said Ohakea's unavailability compromised the economic viability of flying to New Zealand.

A flight bound for Auckland having to nominate Christchurch as an alternative instead of Ohakea, or vice versa, carried extra fuel, and fewer passengers or less cargo.

However, O'Brien said Ohakea still was not available all the time.

"We do have still some limitations from Ohakea that don't arise from [the air force], but arise from air traffic controllers."

Air traffic control is available at Ohakea from 5am to 10.30pm, but some large international flights arrive in New Zealand outside of that.

An Airways NZ spokesperson said although there had been discussions about the issue it had not received a formal request from airlines or the Board of Airline Representatives to provide extra traffic controllers at Ohakea. It needed such a request to act.

O'Brien said that was expected to happen soon.

Ohakea base commander Group Captain Pete Gibson said round-the-clock fire and rescue services were introduced in late March, after staff members received specialised training.

"We went to a private training provider in Dubai, because at the time that we needed the training that was the best place to get the training," he said.

"It's called command and control training. What it means is we've got our people trained now so that they can manage multiple fire appliances that might respond to an incident - and also just the scale of the incident.

"A huge aircraft with multiple passengers onboard has a certain level of complexity."

The air force did not provide the service for free - commercial airlines paid, although Gibson said that agreement was commercially sensitive.

The new fire and rescue personnel were not just waiting around for commercial flights to land - Ohakea was a busy airport with 250 "movements" a week, he said.

"Primarily, they're here because the air force has a need for that level of service for our own aircraft operations - so, the aircraft we have here at Ohakea, but also some of our [other] air force aircraft, which are actually a bit larger and that come in from Auckland.

"We also need that same level of capability for our foreign military partners who might fly into Ohakea."

Five to 10 commercial flights a day nominated Ohakea as their alternative destination.

The most recent commercial airliner to land there was in 2021.

"We allow them to land here safely and to park here. We will refuel them if they need refuelling to allow them to get to their final destination," Gibson said.

"It would not be normal for people to disembark off the aircraft, however, we have contingency plans if that was required for some reason."

Gibson was confident Ohakea could continue to offer the 24/7 fire and rescue service after a tough few years retaining personnel, saying the Defence Force offered job security and good salaries.