Regional towns in New Zealand are lobbying against a push by Airways, New Zealand’s air navigation services provider, to withdraw air traffic control services (ATC) at five regional centers.

Airways says it needs to conserve cash, despite receiving a NZ$70 million (US$43 million) support package from the government.

The organization’s spokeswoman says the post COVID-19 recovery in air traffic will be slow and it “may take up to two years to return to just 60% of pre-pandemic levels.”

“Airways says it is considering closing ATC towers at Hawke’s Bay, Gisborne, New Plymouth, Rotorua and Invercargill, and closing airfield flight information services at Kapiti Coast Airport and Milford Sound Piopiotahi Aerodrome.

Air traffic has been consistently low at these airports, even before the COVID-19 crisis, says the spokeswoman.

Unlike ATC towers, issuing instructions to pilots, the airfield flight information service only offers live information to pilots for safe operations, and is used at low traffic aerodromes.

Regional towns have responded angrily to Airways’ plan. Rotorua mayor, Stephanie Chadwick, says airlines will be less likely to fly to towns with no ATC, jeopardizing efforts to revive the local tourism sector and economy post COVID-19.

She is seeking national government support to stop the plan, including lobbying prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

Airways says it plans to retrench about 180 staff. The reduction in air traffic services will reduce Airways’ cost base by up to 30 percent and help sustain Airways operations beyond the one-off support package, the spokeswoman says. She says low-traffic airports with no ATC can still operate safely.

The Airways spokeswoman says no final decision has been made, and that staff consultation will end in May, the first step on the review process.

The ATC towers under review represent five of the 17 towers Airways operates.

Picture credit: Stu Newby