MetFlight GA is free again: Let’s celebrate one step backwards to safer flying

26 May 2015 / by Brian Mackie / Consultation, Costs, Governance, Safety

From July 1, MetFlight GA will be publicly funded – just like mountain and marine forecasts.

This decision, buried in the 2015 Budget, brings to an end a campaign of protest from private pilots, established aviation organisations and GAA supporters. It finally acknowledges that weather information for general aviators is for the benefit of people aloft and people on the ground, and must never be subject to the “user pays” mantra.

The GAA – the New Zealand group of independent Kiwi general aviators that relies solely on user opinion and support – was among the first and the most vocal to raise opposition when the charges were imposed. We followed up on an article written by Ross St George of Massey University, titled MetFlight or MetFright? published in Pacific Wings. The GAA was also the only interest group to conduct a supporter poll, which indicated that the use of MetFlight GA had plummeted since charges were introduced.

Before subscription was imposed, about 80 percent of aviators regularly consulted MetFlight GA. That fell to about 14% after fees were introduced, according to our poll. MetFlight GA subscriptions never numbered much more than 500, according to official figures supplied to GAA.

It is worth remembering that MetService told GAA that it was not possible to remove the fee because MetFlight GA costs had to be recovered, under its mandate as a State-owned Enterprise, following the cessation of the CAA subsidy that previously supported the forecasts.

It is also worth remembering the words of former Minister of Transport Gerry Brownlee, who – in attempting to answer our question: “Why should private pilots pay for safety information, when boaties, climbers and trampers do not?” – stated that private pilots were identifiable while the others were not, and that his administration had no plans to change the policy. For some history of the saga, read this previous GAA article.

CAA Director Graeme Harris was never happy with the charging policy and told us so. We now know that he worked quietly behind the scenes to find an alternative. He told GAA: “We have been lobbying hard for this for some time and knew that a favourable outcome was close, but couldn’t say much due to the secrecy around the Budget process.”

Also known to be unhappy was Airways Corporation – and this profit-directed SOE probably also played a role.

For their contributions, they’ve earned the gratitude of all Kiwi aviators. Credit is also due to all those anonymous folk who provided supporting evidence in the GAA poll, and to the organisations which defend and promote general aviation in New Zealand and strove to achieve this result.

The wind at 2000 ft on May 25, 2015, free from using information supplied by MetService

The wind at 2000 ft on May 25, 2015, free from using information supplied by MetService

While the wheels of bureaucracy ground slowly on in the offices of MetService, the MoT, the CAA and Airways, tech-savvy general aviators in this country discovered that MetFlight was becoming less essential. EFB users found they could download quite accurate local weather and apply it to their low-level flight plans using data from Australia, derived from information supplied by MetService! Purists might insist on interpreting old-fashioned wind charts, but had overtaken all that by supplying real-time actual winds and forecasts in an instantly recognisable format. And you could get it on a mobile phone.

The Budget decision means that low-level aviators in New Zealand will no longer be forced to pay in excess of $100 a year for MetService aviation forecasts. Although the cut-off date for a paid service is July 1, technical issues may delay full introduction of the free service.

Alongside this runs the introduction of a simpler, graphics-based SIGMET.

GAA supporters took a leading role in mocking the arrival of ICAO-dictated SIGMETs, which removed familiar geographical locations and replaced them with references to Lats and Longs.

Many aviators also find the CAA’s apparent resistance to plain English GA forecasts somewhat puzzling. Even more bizarre is the fact that a private individual makes such forecasts available in this country. It’s to be hoped that, in re-introducing a free MetFlight GA service, MetService does not break Ian Boag’s PEMET.

The CAA seems (whenever it suits) happy to use ICAO “global” decisions as an excuse for imposing changes that sometimes inadvertently and adversely impact on New Zealand’s general aviators (while ignoring the option to adopt the accepted ICAO policy of local, State-based member decisions that are accepted as “exceptions”, such as the one imposed by Canada that introduced a two-level system of SIGMET – one for international, IFR-based transport, and the other for local operators).

It is to be hoped that the new, free MetFlight GA service will return to its rightful place on the Airways IFIS website. This would provide a one-click solution for NOTAMs and weather information – something that contributors to the GAA poll have overwhelmingly supported.

In the meantime, claims that one New Zealand aviation organisation or another has achieved a victory in returning MetFlight GA to a free service should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

This was not a victory for the GAA, AOPA, RAANZ, SAA, Flying NZ or Gliding NZ.

It was the overdue triumph of common sense over commercial obduracy and political dogma, assisted in large part by many individuals – some of them public servants – who knew all along that the idea of charging private pilots for aviation weather information was unacceptable, unsustainable and unsafe.