COMMENT:

The case of Napier's late for work air traffic controller has put the future of regional towers prominently on the radar.

There are still questions over why the controller was late, but the 20-minute delay to Police Minister Stuart Nash's flight has turned the spotlight on how robust the existing control system is. Equally important, both Airways and the controllers' union are staking out their positions in the shake-up that is coming from early next decade.

New technology will allow airfields to be monitored from remote, centralised locations.

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Airways says it is confident about using the technology as a national alternative to bricks and mortar towers, to provide greater aviation safety, resilience and the option to provide extended levels of service to New Zealand's regions.

Controllers, highly unionised and represented by the NZ Air Line Pilots' Association (ALPA), have their doubts. They say nothing beats eyes on the airfield.

The rollout schedule for new digital towers around the country hasn't been released, but Invercargill will be the first. Already, the state-owned Airways is seeking a supplier of digital tower technology.

The request for proposal also signals Airways' intention to implement a digital tower at Auckland International Airport - as a back-up to its existing tower by 2020, and a full replacement in the future.

As Airways puts it, digital tower technology allows air traffic controllers to direct traffic from a remote location, by watching live footage of the airfield from high-definition video cameras.

The vision is enhanced by surveillance sensors, flight data and augmented reality overlays, providing controllers with a panoramic view of the airfield in more detail than is possible with the human eye.

Airways showed journalists a demonstration version of the technology late last year at Auckland Airport. Although the prototype didn't perform perfectly, it was impressive.

Digital towers are being trialled worldwide, at airports including Changi and London City. They have also permanently replaced traditional towers in Scandinavia.

Following the incident in Napier - the second in a week - Airways apologised. And in response to questions it said digital towers would provide a greater level of resilience.

Working from a centralised hub would make it easier to extend services if it needed to.

''Currently the hours of service are set around scheduled services and we are not able to extend those as operational needs change or if we get short notice requests from airlines or other customers," said Airways. "If we were working in a centralised way, it would be possible to provide a more flexible service.''

Herald business reporter Aimee Shaw takes a series of test to see if she's got what it takes to be an air traffic controller.

An Airways spokeswoman this week said it had not begun discussions with ALPA about staffing, adding that speculation on the implementation was premature. The system would need to be signed off by the Civil Aviation Authority.

''Our primary motivation around implementing this technology is to enhance safety and alleviate the concerns around disruption of services.''

There's no argument from the union there, but there is a looming flashpoint over staffing.

ALPA president Tim Robinson said the remote/virtual tower technology, when installed, would potentially enhance surveillance capability and the union saw this as being of added benefit to safety.

''However, NZALPA has reservations around multiple airports being controlled simultaneously using only one air traffic controller, as this was not globally accepted as being a sensible use of the new technology,'' he said.

The association believes automation should be used to improve safety and enhance the capability of controllers, rather than to replace them.

''There is no substitute for a person actively monitoring operations by looking out the window - especially during unusual adverse weather events or aircraft emergency situations," Robinson said.

Existing staff levels for the current network are a source of friction. Airways says staffing levels are set to accommodate an anticipated level of staff illness, leave and other expected absences, but ALPA says they're spread too thin.

Wellington Airport's new air traffic control tower, dubbed the Leaning Tower of Rongotai. / Mark Mitchell

Airways says it operates at 99.8 per cent service availability across the country. The Board of Airline Representatives says its members are comfortable that overall, Airways provides a very reliable service.

While Nash's Twitter outburst has highlighted issues, he's been conspicuously silent since his initial spray, when he called the controller a ''clown'' for tardiness.

His press secretary, when asked about the wider staffing issue, directed the Herald to Twitter, where later on Monday Nash acknowledged the good job Airways was doing. The thread also revealed a predictable lack of public sympathy for the Napier MP's plight - one tweet said it ''sounds like someone had run out of tiny pies and perspective in the Koru Lounge''.

Nash has gone quiet on the air traffic control issue but he's started a debate over its future that needs to be had.

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