It’s officially true: the CAA is toxic. But will it get a detox?

OUT: Graeme Harris

Cast your mind back to 2018 and you may recall the Saga of the CAA Client Satisfaction Survey and how the Authority’s leading lights rubbished the results when the GAA ran a customer survey after the CAA refused to do the job.

The Director, Graeme Harris, rejected what GAA supporters said about his Authority after our survey of opinion in 2018 and 2019. His compatriot, Board Chairman Nigel Gould, having spurned our suggestion that the CAA conduct a customer satisfaction survey, casually dismissed the results of ours – which had overwhelmingly condemned the CAA’s performance.

It was obvious that the CAA, from the board level down, refused to acknowledge facts because they preferred delusions. Strange how some people are selective about the truth when it doesn’t fit with what they want to see or hear…

However, the truth doesn’t change simply because the CAA can’t stomach it. The GAA has previously pointed out deficiencies in the governance of the CAA to various ministers of transport. The standard response has been that they have “full confidence in the CAA”.

Now the worm has dramatically turned. We have seen the previous chairman and his deputy leave the Authority under the darkest of clouds, and ministerial confidence silently evaporated.

IN: Shelley Turner

Then, when the Director and CEO of the CAA suddenly departed in March 2020, he left more questions than answers. Did he retire (as officially described) or did he resign (as certain sections of the media said) or was he forced out by politicians who knew what was coming to him and them?

Why did he quit at the moment New Zealand aviation was struck down by the Covid-19 crisis? Did his departure have anything to do with an impending report on a review of CAA culture sparked by CAA whistleblowers? Did it occur to him that his vision of an expanding Authority had been destroyed (along with most of his customer base) almost overnight?

In time, these and other important questions will be answered.

The doors of the Asteron Centre have also closed permanently on the Deputy Director General Aviation, Steve Moore, who is “taking time out” and the Chief Legal Counsel, John Sneyd, who is now General Manager Building System Performance with the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment. Good career move, some might say.

When staff whistleblowers finally emerged to tell the public what the general aviation industry had been saying for years about the CAA, it caused a stir that was probably discarded by most of the public with the fish and chip wrappers. But the GAA’s supporters had been saying much the same thing for a decade or more: the CAA was dysfunctional, too bureaucratic, too expensive, punitive and oppressive.

The common keyword from staff and customers of the CAA was: “Toxic”.

The review of CAA culture didn’t mince words. It agreed with the whistleblowers and the definition of toxic.

The CAA is now undergoing a period of “organisational transformation”. Those of a cynical nature may suspect this to resemble the reorganisation of deckchairs on the Titanic as the mighty liner slowly sinks.

With much of the old guard having been swept away, let’s briefly look at the new brooms.

Mahanga Maru: Sounds as confident as Icarus – but he has flight experience

On paper, the recently appointed CAA Acting Director and Chief Executive, Shelley Turner, seems well qualified to effect a long-overdue change of culture. She has come from the New Zealand Intelligence community where she was Deputy Director General and led a programme of “transformation across the organisation.” Just how successful that was, we may never know. Prior to that, she was with the State Services Commission as Manager People and Development.

The CAA also has a new Deputy Chief Executive Officer, Mahanga Maru, who grandly claims: “I keep the skies of Aotearoa safe and secure. I lead the development and implementation of the CAA’s stakeholder engagement strategy and plan. I oversee and co-ordinate the CAA’s relationship with key stakeholders.”

Prior to joining the CAA, he spent some time as Chief Maori Advisor with New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals, where he was “responsible for advising his colleagues and stakeholders how to effectively engage with whanau, hapu and iwi to achieve mutually agreeable outcomes”.

So, we note some cringe-worthy corporate-speak but some flying experience as well, since he qualified as a flying instructor in 1990. He’s also been active in resurrecting the Ruatoria Aero Club and airfield. GA stakeholders are looking forward to hearing from Mr Maru.

Janine Hearn, the Deputy Chief Executive Aviation Safety, also comes from a Human Resources background after spending time as GM, People and Culture with the Mid-Central District Health Board and before that, GM, Human Resources at Worksafe.

One might be forgiven for believing that the Authority is now being driven almost exclusively by an HR-orientated executive structure. (And what an odious term is Human Resources; humans are sentient beings, not commodities.) There is scant evidence of in-depth aviation experience among the recent senior appointees.

Can we nevertheless hope for a leaner, lighter, better-balanced aviation administration that manages its affairs more efficiently and takes much better care of its core customers? Dare we hope for a less authoritarian, made-to-measure, radically reformed and perhaps renamed Civil Aviation Administration of New Zealand?  Less dictatorial, more all-encompassing, less bureaucratic, more friendly?

Only time will tell whether any meaningful changes occur with the relationship the CAA has with its GA clients.

But there is room for a smidgeon of optimism.

CAA Acting Director Turner greeted the damning report on her Authority’s “culture” with much aspirational talk, which amounted to a promise of internal change and eventually closer relationships with the “stakeholders”.

So we thought it might be a good time to resurrect the ancient idea (abandoned decades ago by the CAA and resisted by it ever since) of the Client Satisfaction Survey.

Bright-eyed and ever the optimist, GAA co-principal Des Lines wrote to Board Chairperson Janice Fredric about this back in early March, providing her with the detailed background to this issue. He told her:

“The GAA has always believed that client satisfaction survey findings should become an important part of the CAA’s business planning, highlighting areas where it is doing well, as well as those that need to be focused on and improved.

“A client feedback system also provides valuable information to not only the CAA Board, but also senior managers can use it to gauge the performance and effectiveness of the departments they administer”.

But, Lines said, the CAA had refused to consider such a survey, so the GAA went ahead and conducted its own. The results were conveyed to the then Chairman, Nigel Gould, who merely dismissed them as “inconsequential”.

The disdain with which Gould ignored the opinions of hundreds of GA operators was later mirrored by the arrogance with which he treated CAA whistleblowing staff. This was too much for his Minister, and that was the end of Mr Gould’s sorry chairmanship.

Janice Fredric: Closer engagement with operators is ‘a key focus’

Des Lines concluded his letter to Ms Fredric by saying:

“We note that in the intervening period, the previous Chairman and his Deputy have since left the Authority. The new CAA Board is hopefully working under a more enlightened and responsible leadership.

“We now formally request that the Board gives full and earnest consideration to instructing the Chief Executive to re-introduce client satisfaction surveys on a triennial basis. We cannot accept that the cost of a client satisfaction survey or a lack of staff resources would be valid reasons for not carrying out such a survey.”

The answer was a very long time coming, but we have now been told by Ms Fredric that the CAA’s leadership team is seriously considering the re-introduction of client satisfaction surveys. Along with that, there was a conciliatory acknowledgment that relationships with aviation participants have been fraught at times and that a closer engagement with stakeholders is a key focus of the Board and the leadership team.

Is there cause for optimism? Is this an indication of the more enlightened, progressive and responsible leadership we hoped for?

Once again, only time will tell.