Revealed! Why only pilots pay for weather forecasts

25 May 2014 / by Brian Mackie / Adventure, Consultation, Costs, Governance, Safety
Brownlee's User Pays policy: If we don't know your name, we won't charge you

Brownlee’s User Pays policy: If we don’t know your name, we won’t charge you

Why do boaties and trampers enjoy free weather forecasts, but recreational aviators must pay? The straight answer comes, at long last, from almost the highest authority in the land: the Minister of Transport, the Honourable Gerry Brownlee.

Put simply, it’s because the authorities know the names and addresses of the pilots. But they can’t identify the boaties and trampers. If they could, they’d charge them. And if Brownlee let them do that, he’d commit political suicide.

GAA has been quietly waging a campaign to abolish MetService subscriptions for MetFlight weather forecasts. We have written to MetService, Minister of Transport Brownlee, the Prime Minister, the chairpersons of CAA and Airways, the CEO of the Ministry of Transport and the transport spokespersons of all major political parties.

At virtually every turn, we have been stonewalled – and in some instances completely ignored. The common courtesy of either a substantive or an interim reply has not been received from either the CEO of the Ministry of Transport or from the CAA, despite way more than 20 working days having elapsed.

The case is simple. Weather forecasts are a critical safety issue for general aviators. Our recent poll of users showed that only 75 out of 500 responders were using the $100-a-year MetFlight service, whereas 80 percent of them consulted it when it was free. If you doubt our statistics, check the figures we attained from the Medical Survey, which indicated a 5.8% decrease in applications for Class 2 medicals since the CAA introduced its $313 application fee. Gerry Brownlee, in a subsequent letter to a GAA supporter, said that his figures from the CAA showed an “expected” 5.4% decrease in applications for a medical.

The case is also straightforward. GAA supporters cannot see why they should pay for weather forecasts when boaties and trampers get such vital specialist information at no charge.

The logic is plain: it is perfectly obvious that many private pilots are using alternative sources of weather information, such as home weather stations on the internet-based website Underground Weather, TV or other offshore internet-based services.

Why? Because they refuse to pay for something that others get for free. They also know it costs MetService virtually nothing to produce the forecasts because GA recreational weather is a by-product of information that has already been generated for commercial operators. In effect, the cost has already been recovered.

So let’s take a look at how the powers-that-be have so far dealt with our plea: for an interdepartmental initiative to create alternative funding for general aviation forecasts, and get them re-integrated with IFIS, so we can once again obtain all the vital weather and NOTAM information from a single source at no direct cost (and preferably, in plain English).

Sarah Smith: A selective reader of letters

Sarah Smith: A selective reader of letters

First, Des Lines wrote to Sarah Smith, chair of Meteorological Services of New Zealand Ltd, suggesting that the Crown and the three relevant State enterprises – MetService, Airways and the CAA – and the Ministry of Transport could enter into an agreement under Section 7 of the SOE Act, under which they would supply the forecasting service to Airways, to be provided within IFIS in return for the payment by the Crown of the whole or part of the cost.

He said: Airways have indicated to us in our correspondence with them, that:

‘It is possible from a technical point of view, for the weather information to be reinstated to the IFIS website as you outline; however, Airways does not own that information or the products so we cannot make any commitment to provide them.’

The MoT has a long-standing contract with MetService, generating 44% of its total revenue. We note that this contract is up for renewal this year. We suggest that MetService in the interests of corporate social responsibility may be prepared to forgo a reduction of $43,000 pa [its current estimated income from 429 MetFlight subscribers] in revenue and provide free GA weather in similar manner to that provided for mountain and marine recreational activities.

We also note that the MetService budgets provided for the donation of $210,000 in advertising value to charities in the 2011/12 year (up 86% on the previous year) and also $157,000 in the 2013/14 year.

Could not a portion of this budget be offset towards supplying GA weather information to Airways to host on their IFIS website?

♦ To read the entire letter, click here

The letter to MetService was copied to Prime Minister John Key; Transport Minister Gerry Brownlee; SEOs Minister Tony Ryall; CAA Chair Nigel Gould; Airways New Zealand Chair Ms Susan Paterson; and Martin Matthews, Chief Executive, Ministry of Transport, requesting their participation in seeking a collaborative solution to the problem.

We got this reply from Ms Smith:

Thank you for your letter of 20 April 2014 in regards to the provision of weather information to the General Aviation community. I appreciate your concern for aviation safety, and I can assure you that MetService shares that concern and has a strong professional focus on minimising weather-related risks to the wider aviation sector.

However, as a State Owned Enterprise, MetService is expected to operate in a commercial manner, which is not consistent with the suggestion that it provide services to the GA community free of charge. As you have noted in your letter, this service has in the past been provided at no cost to the user, through sponsorship of the service by the Civil Aviation Authority. In the absence of some other funding arrangement, the existing subscription service allows GA pilots to access the weather information they need, at a modest cost, without compromising MetService’s position as a SOE.

Did Ms Smith actually read Des Lines’s letter? It would appear not. All the suggestions within the letter were completely ignored in her reply. (Extract from the MetService Mission Statement: To operate in a socially responsible manner, with particular regard to MetService employees, the environment, the community, and our customers.)

Ed Sims: Reveals a mystery initiative

Ed Sims: Reveals a mystery initiative

Ed Sims, CEO of Airways, demonstrated just how utterly disconnected SOEs can be, in his reply:

Airways has an ongoing and constructive dialogue with MetService regarding the provision of met data to support aviation activities across New Zealand and the Oceanic airspace, for which Airways is responsible.

Airways receives met data provided under a commercial agreement with the MetService. Airways respects and acknowledges that it is the MetService’s data and we are bound both by the terms of use and (as MetService is State Owned Enterprise itself) the commercial grounds upon which the data is provided.

Airways would like to incorporate the met data into our IFIS website and continues to discuss the terms upon which that would be provided with the Met Service.

I acknowledge the proposal you have made and Airways will work with the other parties you have referenced in your letter, as required, to make met data available. The commercial terms on which this data can be made available are yet to be established.

Airways is aware that the Ministry of Transport has offered to take the lead to liaise with the MetService on its proposed response to your letter.

Really? None of the above appears to match reality (or, if it does, no one outside Mr Sims’s office seems aware of, or is prepared to talk to GAA about, this surprising initiative – least of all Ms Smith, the Ministry of Transport or the CAA).

From the other political party transport spokespersons who received Des Lines’s letter, there has been not so much as an acknowledgement of receipt.

Gerry Brownlee: His letter deserves a big booby prize

Gerry Brownlee: His letter deserves a big booby prize

Except for one: the killer response from Minister of Transport Brownlee, who told us why aviators are being charged for their weather forecasts. He signed off the following astonishing admission:

The government’s policy is that, where appropriate, users pay for services that they receive. There are no plans to change this policy for weather information available to recreational pilots.

You note that mountain and marine weather is provided free of charge. This service is provided free of charge because there is no practical way of charging trampers and boaties for mountain and marine weather respectively. [Our emphasis]

That must go down as Public Servant Letter of the Year, as one GAA supporter commented.

In a reply from Brownlee in June 2013, regarding the fuel excise tax collected from aircraft using MOGAS and used for predominantly road funding activities, the Minister said:

Most of the revenue from fuel excise duty goes to the National Land Transport Fund, which funds roads and other land transport activities. However, the government recognises that people using petrol off-road also pay this excise duty. Therefore, some of the revenue collected from excise duty pays for search and rescue activities.

To use a similar logic – as the Minister states in the ‘user pays’ case for not funding GA met information – in the case of search and rescue activities, there is a clearly defined user of the rescue services. If government policy is to be fairly and equitably introduced across all sectors, the cost of a rescue operation should be passed on to those who give rise to or benefit from it: those rescued.

The ‘user pays’ philosophy of this government as espoused by its present Minister of Transport is being selectively applied in a way which is inappropriate, inconsistent and unfair. The Department of Conservation has increased its funded contract with MetService from $106,000 to $226,000 a year for weather information. This indicates an awareness of a social responsibility towards public safety in the mountains and back country, on the part of Conservation Minister Nick Smith. Why, then, are Brownlee, his Ministry of Transport and the CAA not supporting similar funding of weather information for recreational aviation?

GAA has told MetService and the CAA that it believes the forecaster may be in breach of its contract to supply weather services under the terms of CAA Rule Part 174, namely this clause:

174.9 Issue of certificate

An applicant is entitled to a meteorological service certificate if the Director is satisfied that

(3) the granting of the certificate is not contrary to the interests of aviation safety.

GAA says that charging recreational pilots for weather forecasts

♦ breaches the spirit of the contract,

♦ is anomalous to the policy adopted for other recreational users and

♦ is contrary to the interests of aviation safety.

In this, we’re supported by a comment made by Chief Justice Sir Harry Gibbs of the High Court of Australia:

Where it is possible to guard against a foreseeable risk which, though perhaps not great, nevertheless cannot be called remote or fanciful, by adopting a means which involves little difficulty or expense, the failure to adopt such means will in general be negligent.

[Gibbs, Chief Justice Sir Harry. Turner v State of South Australia (1982). High Court of Australia before Gibbs CJ, Murphy, Brennan, Deane and Dawson JJ.]

If you want the context, it’s in section 1.4 of the following document:

GAA supporters’ reactions to Brownlee’s response indicate a widespread feeling that the Minister is way out of his depth (to put it politely). Here’s a selection…

Ask Gerry Brownlee when his government intends that the principle of ‘User Pays’ will be applied to the inmates of the Prison Service! After all, they also are a ‘captive group’ and easily identifiable, like pilots are.

To try to justify the present position (and anomaly re access to recreational aviation weather) as a user pays item, when no other recreational activity that is weather-influenced or -dependent is treated likewise, on the grounds that it is ‘not practical’ is illogical. If the Minister (and Government) wanted to be pure and consistent about this, under ‘user pays’, access to outdoors recreational and maritime weather should be put on a ‘user-pays’ footing. People wishing access to such products should have to hold an account with MetService or log on in the same way to the tailored weather information site (which mountain and maritime are) and be charged for the delivery.

Of course, the numbers involved suggest that there are no votes in applying the policy equitably. I suspect a grass roots political campaign will be required on both the ‘fairness and safety fronts’. Make noise…create turbulence, create discomfort.

I read the response of the Honourable Minister from Ilam where he stated that the only reason they don’t collect ‘user pays’ fees from the likes of boaties is that there is no practical way of collecting. Of course they could indeed restrict access to marine forecasts and maritime safety information if they so chose and make it available via subscription. He knows that the government would not consider doing that because they would be lynched by the masses. Because of the pervasiveness of warped thinking like this from both elected and appointed officials, it is critical that the work you do continues.

I question the logic of the Hon Gerry Brownlee. If it is indeed the government’s policy to charge users for services they receive and there is no practical way to charge trampers and boaties, then why is free weather provided to them? That is surely the reverse argument.

I suspect it is because the Minister of Transport knows that not doing so would blatantly disregard the safety of these two groups and give him too much bad press.

Just thought I would pen a quick note to say thank you for sticking up for GA as a whole and taking the CAA and other government agencies to task on what seems like fairly basic, common sense matters. The GAA team are doing great work and have given a voice to a somewhat disparate group that as individuals tend to feel we can’t change anything.

Sadly, I fear that the statement in your letter, that it will take a serious incident or accident before anything happens, will in the fullness of time prove accurate. Ever the optimist, one might hope than the coming general election might provide a small amount of leverage to get the slow-moving wheels of government turning!

Pity they cannot see it from a safety side of things.

Not sure I follow the logic of Gerry Brownlee’s rationale for not charging boaties and trampers. Why does he consider it important that these groups be given the benefit of a weather service, just on the off-chance that they shoot off into the mountains or fire up the outboard to go out fishing? If, by his logic, these groups wanted this service, then it’s easy for MetService to offer it at a price; otherwise, they set off at their own risk. (Not suggesting that they should be charged in the first place.)

It’s a shame that your letters to certain parties have met with complete silence… total arrogance on their part and shows the true nature of those who wield power in our society!

I was stunned by the response from the Minister of Transport. It shows once again the arrogance and acute lack of understanding that I have come to expect from this individual.

What he has effectively said is that he is happy for recreational aviation users to subsidise all other recreational users of MetService’s products because he can’t think of a way of charging boaties and trampers. I think he means there are too many boaties and trampers (who vote) for him to even dare. We, on the other hand, are small and vulnerable and can therefore be exploited.

I feel the people that make the decisions here are really just the lowest political animals. Envy and jealousy are the prime movers.

Your letter was very good and the points you made were very relevant. The responses were pathetic and indicated clearly that the writers knew absolutely nothing about aviation. I didn’t expect the Minister to know much about it but I would have hoped that some aviation expertise still existed at Airways or in the Met service and that sound advice would have been passed upwards to the Minister. However, my thinking is obviously way out of date. Anyone with real aviation experience appears to be excluded from employment with MOT, CAA, Airways Corp, MetService or any other associated Government department.

Love Brownlee’s response about mountain and marine forecast. No practical way? Hullo? The internet? User pays means you use the service, you subscribe to it?

I’m inspired by your refusal to give up in the face of such a shabby response from the government. The letter from the Hon Gerry Brownlee is the most revealing on what a tough battle we all face. But as long as you have the will, I implore you to keep fighting.

It never ceases to amaze me how some people can make such a simple GGF response (Go get f*****) so convoluted. Keep rattling the cage! The least we can do is keep them all working overtime! Cynical, I know, but the response was so predictable.

Brownlee’s letter beggars belief: just because they can charge us, they do! I accept that if trampers, boaties etc only need the sort of general forecast as provided by MetService on their website, or via TV News at 6, then there is little he can do about it, and I don’t know of any specific site that they might want that can be locked away and only accessed by a credit card!

There is no doubt in my mind that the current charges are degrading aviation safety as people are not using services such as the weather information, they are moving away from GA aviation into aircraft that are not as rugged or forgiving, and the deteriorating relationship between industry/user and CAA means CAA is not getting the feedback it needs to maintain the high standard we saw before charges were imposed.

As predicted, and as I have always maintained, the statistics will show an increasing accident rate. This is becoming very clear. For the whole of last year, I see that on the Aviation Safety Network site, which records accidents, there were five fatal accidents that killed seven people. Up to 11 April this year, the total was above this – six fatal accidents and eight dead. From what I am seeing and hearing, it will get worse.

The sad thing is that the real cost of fatal accidents (I remember seeing a figure of something like a million dollars per person is the real cost) far exceeds the amount of money the government is collecting.

Great work. Although Brownlee doesn’t care, keeping the pressure on may help in the long run.

If Brownlee insists that the reason they provide service to boaties and trampers for free is because they cannot find a way to charge them, then why provide that service at all? Surely if there is no way for users to pay…which, as they go to great lengths to point out is the reason for being of the SOEs… then users shouldn’t get the service!

It is a complete defiance of logic to propose that a service be given for free because they can’t figure out how to charge for it. This is, in fact, telling aviators nothing more than that they are easy targets.

The actual reason, of course, is one of safety – but to admit that would automatically demand the same be provided to aviators. What a bunch of pricks (pardon my language).

I note that all of the replies are very good (at dodging the bullet). They all have some half-hearted, lame excuse as why we should pay. The BS about not being able to charge mountaineering and other sports because of a mailing problem almost qualifies as the best public servant letter of the year.

When I had a dispute with CAA and associated departments, I gave them a public service answer: “The matter is under investigation.” I discovered that that was the curved ball they could not catch.

With respect to Brownlee’s statement that charging hikers is impractical, it is my belief that charges for trail maintenance and other amenities are routinely included in the hut fees we pay. Surely weather could easily be charged for in a similar manner if there were political will? This leads me to believe that his statement is an excuse for inconsistency rather than a measured decision.

I also believe that any examination of the national benefits of safer flying experience vs the costs of search and rescue and subsequent medical emergencies or lost economic contributions would easily justify providing weather to pilots, as it presumably justifies providing it to hikers and climbers.

We are lucky to have you pushing on these items. My feeling from the tone – although overtly negative – is that this time you will get results.

(Let us hope we do…)

♦ Read Ross St George’s 2011 article on the subject, first published in Pacific Wings: MetFlight or MetFright