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Air New Zealand chief operations integrity and standards officer Captain David Morgan says serious drone incidents are on the rise and policy-makers need to protect the travelling public

Air New Zealand calls for tighter regulations on drones

Air New Zealand is advocating for tighter regulation for the illegal operation of drones after a near-miss with an international flight approaching Auckland Airport in late March which potentially put the safety of 278 customers and crew at risk.

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Pilots operating Air New Zealand flight NZ092 from Haneda, Tokyo, on 27 March encountered a drone estimated to be just five metres away from the 777-200 aircraft during its descent into Auckland.

The incident is the second example of reckless drone use potentially endangering passenger safety in March, with flight operations at Auckland Airport halted for 30 minutes earlier in the month when an Air New Zealand pilot reported a drone within controlled airspace.

Air New Zealand chief operations integrity and standards officer Captain David Morgan says serious drone incidents are on the rise and policy-makers need to protect the travelling public with greater education, tighter regulation and stronger penalties for irresponsible operators.

“NZ092 was just metres away from a serious incident. The pilots spotted the drone at a point in the descent where it was not possible to take evasive action. It passed so close to the incoming aircraft that they were concerned it may have been ingested into the engine,” says Captain Morgan.

An inspection of the aircraft showed that the drone did not go into the engine, but Captain Morgan says the time has now come for tougher deterrents for reckless drone use around airports to safeguard travellers, including imposing prison terms in the case of life-threatening incidents.

Undetectable

Air traffic control organisation Airways New Zealand says it is also concerned about an increasing number of drone sightings in controlled airspace. “Over the past year we have received reports of at least one drone per week operating illegally in controlled airspace,” CEO Graeme Sumner says. 

“Air traffic control technology is currently unable to detect small objects such as drones, so we rely on drone operators to follow the rules and register with us before they fly to ensure all aircraft are integrated safely into our airspace.”

Mr Sumner says drone detection technology is still in its infancy globally, but Airways has been actively looking for solutions, and plans to begin trialling a new system within the next three months.

Flight clearances

Airways has operated the airshare.co.nz website for four years, allowing drone operators to request flight clearances from air traffic control and providing information on where they can fly safely. In that time the number of drone flights logged with the system has increased from 30 to 600 per week with more than 7000 users registered.

Drone operators in the Canterbury and Queenstown area can also join Airways’ AirMap trial – a free iOS and Android app which operators can access to seek necessary airspace and public landowner approvals to fly, file flight plans, and access real-time information about other aircraft in the area.

Under current regulations, individual drone operators who breach civil aviation rules can receive a fine of up to $5000. Captain Morgan says Air New Zealand is committed to pushing for tougher and more consistent penalties to raise awareness of the regulations around drone use and the potentially serious consequences of breaching them.


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