Why has the NZ CAA made Kiwi pilots fly less safely?

19 November 2013 / by the GAA team / Consultation, Costs, Governance, Safety

The ICAO-inspired change to SIGMET information that came into effect on November 14 removed all but latitude and longitude references to the information provided by MetFlight (on paid subscription) to non-commercial, domestic aviation in New Zealand.

Responsible for this were Peter Lechner, the CAA Chief Meteorological Officer and Mike Haines, the CAA Manager, Aeronautical Services.

This change has made MetFlight’s arcane aviation forecasts even more difficult to interpret. Pilots planning a flight must now refer to a map to check the location of a possible weather hazard. Unless, of course, you are already in the air, when ATC or Flight Information personnel will happily translate the SIGMET into plain English.

Some readers may be wondering why the change was necessary. It was imposed only to meet the requirements of international OPMET databases. Put simply, the SIGMET format must meet the requirements of a computer system and software primarily designed to assist international, commercial air traffic.

It has nothing to do with New Zealand general aviators or their passengers’ safety and it does nothing to improve it.

Mr Lechner must know that this change makes no sense to anyone in NZ GA, but he appears to have done nothing to oppose its imposition or mitigate the harm it might cause. Instead, something on the CAA’s already hard-to-penetrate website that translates the lats and longs into a rough idea of where MetFlight is talking about. Remarkably, some of the identifiers are NDBs!

We might even look forward to an article in Vector. We could print it out as a cheat-sheet.

This is over-complicated, impractical and plain daft.

What Mr Lechner and his colleague Mr Haines have presided over, on behalf of The Director, will not encourage aviators to purchase or renew their $100-plus annual subscription to the MetFlight service. They appear to have forgotten the CAA mantra that Aviation Safety is Everyone’s Responsibility, including theirs, and the other more important rule: Keep It Simple, Stupid.

Not all civil aviation administrations have obeyed ICAO instructions to the letter – and, for good reason, due to the possible degradation of local air safety.

Canada is one example. As long ago as 2009, a group set up there to study ICAO Annex 3 (the source of this problem) stated in a meeting agenda:

Table A6-1 of Amendment 74 to Annex 3 defines the content and order of elements for SIGMET and AIRMET messages. In addition, paragraphs 1.1.5 and 2.1.5 of Appendix 6 state that such messages shall not contain unnecessary descriptive material.

While it is important for SIGMET and AIRMET messages to follow this template, the limitation set on the description of the weather phenomenon should not preclude the possibility for States to convey additional information of National interest elsewhere in the SIGMET and AIRMET message.

At the present time, ICAO Annex 3 (Table A6-1) provisions do not allow additional information.

We have another reference to this debate in Canada:

…another approach is to describe a coordinate point using latitudes and longitudes at all times and specify its position relative to an aviation reference point (airport, radio navigation aid or intersection) whenever possible (or practical). Transport Canada has indicated that the sole use of latitude and longitude will have a negative impact on domestic and general aviation. NAV CANADA has acknowledged that the use of these reference points would make it easier for a pilot enroute to visualize the location of the affected area without having to plot the coordinates on a map or chart.

The Canadian authorities noted and exploited the key ICAO phrase “shall not contain unnecessary descriptive material” because they found that references to significant places such as aerodromes were necessary descriptive material for the locals.

This is why, on November 14, Canada introduced the ICAO change but provided a simple and elegant solution (what the ICAO calls a Difference) that meets the international requirement while protecting its local aviators from needlessly obscure data and the kind of absurd kludges offered by the New Zealand CAA.

It is called Parallel Forecasts.

One forecast meets ICAO requirements in all respects and is usable by international traffic and OPMET.

The other adds the traditional geographical information that helps domestic traffic.

It looks simple and it is – but this is apparently well beyond the range of Kiwi bureaucrats’ capabilities. Unlike the Canadians, who look after five FIRs and control an area that makes New Zealand look like an unoccupied ant-hill.

The terms of the MetFlight GA service clearly state: MetFlight GA is designed and produced only for use by recreational pilots conducting VFR or IFR recreational flights, at or below 10,000ft in New Zealand. The use of the MetFlight GA service for commercial operations (including scheduled or unscheduled Air Transport Operations), is strictly prohibited.

All GA operators in New Zealand received by way of warning of the change was a pop-up message on the MetFlight website. In Canada, users of NAV CANADA’s free service were offered a detailed, plain-language explanation, along with audio.

There is no reason (apart from a small software change) why MetFlight GA forecasts should not include – or even solely consist of – a similar “parallel” forecast. (The easiest alternative would be to place the Plain English version at the front of the abbreviated forecast, and give the kind of Luddite purists who cherish relics such as Morse Code an option to read the ICAO-approved version.)

After all, aviation weather forecasts in their current painfully abbreviated and ICAO-compliant form may well suit computers and bureaucrats, but they were established before teleprinters were considered to be hi-tech. The rest of the world has rapidly moved on since then. Understanding the coded format might help you pass a Met exam (and therefore feel somehow superior to those who can’t) but it does not aid the cause of aviation safety when flying in the world’s lower levels, where the preference – and the better option – is to use simple English.

GAA would have liked to discuss this matter with Peter Lechner – but at the time of writing this article, he was in London.