The Rotorua Airport chief executive has expressed his disappointment to news that the city could be in line to lose air traffic services due to Covid-19 travel restrictions.

Airways is considering withdrawing air traffic services at seven regional airports around New Zealand where there are limited or no commercial flights operating.

Rotorua's services were under review, along with Hawke's Bay, Gisborne, New Plymouth and Invercargill airports.

Rotorua Airport chief executive Mark Gibb said he was "extremely surprised and disappointed" and furious about the lack of consultation the airport received.

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He said taking away the service "defies common sense" and could be devastating for Rotorua's tourism industry coming out the back end of a crisis.

Now was the time to "work together" not disband, he said.

Consequences of the move could mean less air travel to the region and limit aircraft size capabilities, he said. Air traffic control was "paramount to safety" and could make the airport system "inefficient".

"It's just a loss, loss, loss."

Gibb said three or four jobs could also be a line as a result of the closure.

He said this announcement was unnecessary while the sector was dealing with the Covid-19 crisis.

"I am incredibly unhappy about the process and decision... we will be doing everything we can to keep the service."

Gibb said although remote towers were an option, manually operated towers were a lot safer as the hazards at hand could be more effectively assessed.

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"It is just such a positive and excellent service as it is."

Mayor Steve Chadwick told the Rotorua Daily Post she would be advocating "very strongly" for the services to be retained.

"This is potentially another huge blow to our already devastated economy.

"I have expressed my concerns to Transport Minister Phil Twyford today and am following that up with a letter to him, reinforcing our position," Chadwick said.

"I have also written to Airways to let them know about the devastating social and economic impacts a retraction of these services would have on Rotorua.

"It would be contrary to our recovery efforts and the huge investment by both the people of Rotorua and the Government in ensuring our district remains a key tourism destination – that would be compromised if this goes ahead and I'll be telling them that."

Destination Rotorua's chief executive Michelle Templer said she was "disappointed' with the proposal by Airways NZ to remove air traffic control from Rotorua's airport.

"Rotorua is focused on a strong recovery that looks at business connectivity, commerce and visitor flows, so this proposal will make it difficult for our airport to resume normal services once domestic flights start operating on a regular schedule again," she said.

Templer said the proposal also raised questions about Airways NZ's alignment with central government recovery initiatives and "undermines" the important role that regions would play in the country's economic recovery.

The state-owned enterprise - which could shed up to 180 air traffic control jobs - says it has started the 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.

Rotorua Airport. Photo / File
Rotorua Airport. Photo / File

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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," says Mr 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 airfield 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.


Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website