Hokianga’s privatised airspace? It’s already a done deal, Northland pilots suspect

18 June 2019 / by the GAA team / Consultation, GA in general, Governance, News, Opinion

The much-anticipated public meeting over Hokianga’s “airspace for sale” controversy happened earlier in June. But was it a consultation or a charade? The pilots who attended weren’t in any doubt. Here’s a report by a Northland pilot who was at the meeting in Kerikeri:

The ‘consultation’ between CAA reps, the two people who make up Incredible Skies Ltd and Northland pilots left one pilot overwhelmed by feelings of anger, despair and astonishment at what he had just witnessed.

The Hokianga Air-grab plan

For some reason, the CAA saw fit to have not two or three or four representatives travel up for the occasion, but five individuals attending from Wellington. One of them spoke not a word; but whenever any of the remaining four participated in the discussion, it was invariably in support of Incredible Skies’ application for NZR191 to be granted on a permanent basis.

The two owners of Incredible Skies Ltd appeared supremely confident and unmoved, regardless of how hostile the crowd became. We were tempted to think that part of their self-confidence was because that they knew that the airspace was already theirs and that the consultation was just a formality.

The almost casual demeanour displayed by the owners, combined with the relentless support of the CAA representatives throughout the proceedings, led more than one of the more than 30 pilots there to accuse the CAA of having already decided to grant the airspace – and that the so-called consultation was nothing more than a box-ticking charade.

One of the most glaring examples of trying to fool the audience concerned the CAA rules that forbid anyone to charge a fee for access to restricted airspace.

While the CAA rep trying to conduct proceedings attempted to reinforce this regulation, an Incredible Skies owner was forced to admit that, in terms of his business model making a profit, the turnover would come from the administration and logistical services provided to clients to enable them to have exclusive use of the airspace.

Everyone in the room could see that lacking ‘ownership’ of NZR191 would render the associated services totally worthless. The attempt to suggest that clients would only be paying for the ground support and not the use of the airspace was clearly ridiculous, bordering on insulting, and the CAA reps were right in the thick of the ruse. The audience was furious at this attempt to gloss over the glaringly obvious.

 

So what is driving this push to lock up 874 square kilometres of the scenic Hokianga Harbour from the surface to 3,000 feet? Money of course! The Ministry of Transport (MoT) and the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment (MoBIE) have it in their heads that UAVs are going to be a massive earner for the New Zealand economy. To accomplish this, they need some restricted airspace to be allocated by the CAA, which has regulatory control over such things.

When questioned by a Northland pilot, CAA Director Graeme Harris said:

“The criteria to be taken into consideration in the designation of any special use airspace – including restricted areas – are specified in Civil Aviation Rule Part 71.151. You can find this on our website. The law is quite straight forward in this area and the consideration will largely revolve around whether the designation would be in the public interest”

Shane Jones, champion for parts of Northland…

It so happens that the Hokianga harbour is in Northland, and Northland is one of the areas selected for Shane Jones’s Provincial Growth Fund. How convenient would it be to have the MoT and MoBIE suggest to the CAA that it would be in the greater “public interest” to allocate this Northland area for UAV testing?

The origin of the granting of restricted airspace to commercial entities is the 2000 America’s Cup regatta in Auckland. That ended up having to be enacted by Parliamentary statute, but the upshot was that the event organiser was granted control of airspace for commercial purposes. The Aviation Industry Association and local users presented to a Select Committee and received undertakings that it wouldn’t set a precedent. This is on the record.

The GAA has obtained the presentation notes of the address given on 24 January 1999 to the Transport and Environment Committee on the Civil Aviation Amendment Bill.

The points raised by the Auckland Airspace User Group are as relevant today as they were 20 years ago.

  • The commercial charging for entry into restricted areas is setting a very dangerous precedent, which will lead to the proliferation of operators of restricted airspace using this as a method to collect revenue.
  • The areas are to be operated under Civil Aviation Authority Rules, which makes the Director responsible for compliance and direct oversight. The control of these areas must not be vested in an operator for the purposes of commercial gain.

The group concluded its notes by saying, succinctly, that it did not wish to see “Airspace for Sale” in the future. The Transport and Environment Committee, in its report of March 1999, noted that the submitters had expressed concern that the provisions in Part 2 of the Civil Aviation Amendment Bill were very general and did not provide any specific detail on the following:

  • What criteria would be used by the Director of Civil Aviation in deciding whether to specify the person nominated as the controlling authority?
  • Who would check and approve the accreditation system?
  • What criteria would be used by the Director to decide on how large the designated airspace will be?

At the time, the Transport and Environment Committee expressed its concern that the bill should not be seen as a precedent for charging for access to airspace in the future and emphasised that the statute’s sunset clause reinforces that intention.

We note that, with respect to the current Hokianga restricted airspace applications, there appears to be no sunset clause disclosed either by the operators or by the CAA. Nor, for that matter, has the CAA disclosed how it intends to police restricted airspace to ensure that the controlling authority does not invite other UAV operators to use the airspace and then subsequently charge them for the use of it.

 

There is one final opportunity to protest about the placing of New Zealand airspace in the hands of commercial interests. If you feel strongly about this, we suggest that you raise your concerns by emailing the following CAA staff involved in the Hokianga consultation:

Sean Rogers, Manager Aeronautical Services (sean [dot] rogers [at] caa [dot] govt [dot] nz)

Hamish McKoy, Aeronautical Services Officer (hamish [dot] mckoy [at] caa [dot] govt [dot] nz)