Airways as it is known today came into existence as a State-owned enterprise on 1 April 1987. However its history stretches back further and is intertwined with the history of aviation in New Zealand.
Before becoming a State-owned enterprise, Airways was known as the Civil Aviation Division (CAD) of the Ministry of Transport (MoT) and had a strong focus on safety, innovation and investment. The origins of the department went back to a period of invention around the wars. The need for aviation services was a response to people’s love of flying and technology, both of which helped overcome New Zealand’s relative geographic isolation.
During World War I the Government allowed private operators to train pilots for the allied air forces. After the war, civil flying schools were formed in Auckland and Christchurch. In the 1920s – the decade in which Australian Sir Charles Kingsford Smith made the first successful trans-Tasman flight – county councils and harbour boards had been given power to establish and maintain aerodromes.
Early in the next decade, the Air Navigation Act 1931 came into force to help frame control of the skies. Regular commercial services started in the 1930s and many of the country’s major towns had flights available. This decade also saw New Zealand’s Jean Batten claim three aviation world records.
The development of runways and navigation aids in New Zealand was relatively slow at this time but the loss of two aircraft in 1948 and 1949 inevitably led to further thought on how to better service a growing number of aircraft. Staff became responsible for the provision of air traffic services to civil and military air traffic and for the planning, provision and maintenance of radars, navigational aids and communications.
New Zealand was among the 52 states that signed the Chicago Convention on International Civil Aviation in December 1944. The convention established rules of airspace, aircraft registration and safety. Boundaries, many made of straight lines, were drawn across the large oceanic spaces, including the one for which New Zealand provided navigation services. These areas were known as FIRs (Flight Information Regions). Division among the controlling authorities, including New Zealand’s Civil Aviation department, was done by international agreement through the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), formed in April 1947.
The Ministry of Transport Act 1968 prompted the amalgamation of the Civil Aviation and Transport departments. The new Civil Aviation Division (CAD) of MoT, and later Airways, prepared New Zealand for international winds of change, driven in part by technology. Boeing 737s would become commonplace in the global skies from the late 1960s and part of the national transport system.
Nonetheless, the CAD staff, including technical buffs and former air force navigators and newly qualified cadets, were still heavily reliant on equipment sometimes dating back 20 and 30 years or more. Communications officers used a push button tickertape system of sending messages around the country. Officers communicating with this tickertape system would pass on aeronautical and flight plan messages across the country and overseas.
In 1987, Airways was one of the first Government organisations to become a State-owned enterprise. In 1990 the Civil Aviation Act came into force defining the prime purpose of the regulator, the Civil Aviation Authority, as undertaking activities to promote safety in civil aviation, at reasonable cost.
In 2000, Airways became the first organisation in the world to introduce a satellite based Oceanic communications and surveillance Control System (OCS) to enable Airways to better monitor 30 million square kilometres of airspace The introduction of OCS assisted with the expansion of aircraft moving away from HF voice communication, used since the 1940s to data link communication that connects both ground and aircraft-based flight management computers.
Over the past 20 years, Airways has continued to explore opportunities to improve efficiency, safety and aviation fuel consumption. This included projects such as Collaborative Arrivals Manager, Performance Based Navigation, electronic flight strips and a number of tools to assist with air traffic navigation at low visibility. In 2013, Airways won the CANSO Jane’s ATC Awards in Operational Efficiency category for Southern Performance Based Navigation Installation Project.
In 2015 Airways began work with NASA to launch balloons from Wanaka and the following year, signed an agreement with RocketLab to support the testing and launching of rockets from the world’s first private orbital launch site on Mahia Peninsula. In the same year, Airways launched Internet Flight Information Services (IFIS) website to support general aviation users and ensure greater aviation safety in uncontrolled airspace.