Pilots say moves by Airways to cut air traffic services in seven regions is reckless and puts money ahead of safety.
The New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association president Andrew Ridling said:the decision lacks integrity and is an ill-informed approach by an ''inexperienced group of aviation leaders.''
Airports say the Airways' move has sent shockwaves around the industry.
Airways has already been given $107 million of tax payers' money either directly or via rebates, and also applied for $5 million in wage subsidy to prevent redundancies, said Ridling.
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The air traffic control services under review are those provided from Airways' towers at Hawke's Bay, Gisborne, New Plymouth, Rotorua and Invercargill airports. The airfield flight information service provided at Kāpiti Coast Airport and Milford Sound Piopiotahi Aerodrome is also being considered.
Ridling asked where was the essential safety case to close these regional air traffic towers.
''Let alone the thought given to the regional economic impact.''
Association pilot and air traffic controller members said they were fearful for themselves and the travelling public that this decision with only tacit discussion can be made by Airways leadership.
While Airways has said safety would be maintained, Ridling said tower closure would mean the Civil Aviation Authority requirement to have air traffic control in attendance would be unable to be met for typical propeller aircraft such as ATR and Q300.
"Airways is now proposing to move the safety level of our National Airspace System back to the levels seen in developing nations.
Ridling said Airways have not conducted any significant form of stakeholder consultation including input into safety cases. Both the CAA and NZALPA require robust safety cases, including the crucial talks with those who will be significantly impacted," he said.
The regional airports affected are ''shocked,'' says NZ Airports.
Chief executive Kevin Ward said Airways only advised airports yesterday of the plans.
"We obviously understand that changes have to be made to reflect the current, unprecedented, low levels of air traffic. But these seven regions and the whole air transport network are focussing on what needs to be done to emerge quickly and resume flights when restrictions are lifted. This move is deeply concerning because it is so unclear if the Airways plan will cater for anything like a return to some form of normality," he said.
"Good risk assessment processes must apply before any changes are made. What might be safe now, in a highly unusual situation, won't be a sustainable solution when travel restrictions are lifted."
Ward said the affected airports are all critical cogs in the economies of their regions – supporting business, tourism, social connections and regional resilience.
"It won't be acceptable for the airports to be hamstrung by Airways taking a narrow, short-term view. Economic recovery post-COVID-19 is a regional and national priority and air connections will have a major role to play in how we support our regions to bounce back."
He expected the Government would take an interest as regional economic recovery is a big part of the special support being provided during the Covid-19 disruptions.
The state-owned enterprise - which could shed up to 180 jobs - says it has started discussion with the airports, airlines and staff.
It says any changes would mean aircraft will still be able to fly safely to these locations. This includes freight, medical flights and future passenger services.
Pilots flying into these airfields would use standard visual flight rules to stay separated before they reach an altitude covered by air traffic control radar operated from larger centres.
Air traffic volumes have collapsed as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak. Airways announced earlier this week that it will reduce its cost base by 30 per cent with 180 of its staff expected to leave through redundancy.
Forecasts indicate the national network will only see up to a 60 per cent recovery over the next two years, with border restrictions expected to stay in place for some time.
The locations currently under review are those where air traffic had been low even before the outbreak, Airways chief executive Graeme Sumner says.
"It is simply not viable to continue the same level of service at locations where there are no passenger flights," he said.
"It's an unfortunate and stark reality, but our focus now needs to be on supporting the long-term recovery of New Zealand's aviation industry by ensuring our services are affordable and match the reality of the aviation sector now and into the future.
"We now need to consider operating different services at these airports or that they operate as uncontrolled airspace in the same way as other uncontrolled aerodromes in New Zealand that have no Airways service – including Kerikeri, Taupo, Whangarei and Timaru airports," said Sumner.
Airways expects to commence a two-week consultation process with unions next week.
At present Airways operates 17 air traffic control towers nationally and offers an aerodrome flight information service (AFIS) at Kapiti Coast Airport and Milford Sound Piopiotahi Aerodrome.
AFIS is used at aerodromes where there are very low traffic levels. It is different to air traffic control in that AFIS officers do not issue instructions to pilots. Instead they provide pilots with information they use to safely operate in and around an aerodrome.