Airways New Zealand continues in a state of high readiness while there remains any chance that Mount Tongariro could erupt again.
Last month’s eruption occurred with minimal disruption to air travellers and Airways, which operates New Zealand’s air traffic control system, is well-prepared to handle any future crises.
During volcanic eruptions, Airways plays a crucial role in gathering and disseminating information from nearby aircraft about these natural crises and using this information, and that from national emergency response services, to ensure airline operators avoid danger, while continuing to fly.
Airways’ Manager Terminals Andy Boyd says Mount Tongariro’s eruption last month proved the aviation industry has what it takes to work together and respond quickly and efficiently to a crisis.
Mr Boyd says the industry had learned a lot from similar crises such as the eruptions in Iceland and Chile before Tongariro blew.
“The Chilean eruption, in particular, opened up dialogue between ourselves and Air New Zealand that resulted in a Memorandum of Operation for responding to these sorts of crises,” he says.
It helped that the incident was anticipated well in advance, was over fairly quickly and was small in scale compared to recent global events, he says.
Mr Boyd says last month’s eruption caused very few issues for the flying public.
“Most travellers got to their destinations as planned, with very few disruptions. We’re very pleased with how things went. It was a great outcome for us, for airline operators and for travellers, particularly in light of all that occurred behind the scenes,” he says.
Mount Tongariro erupted last month, spewing a three-to-four kilometre plume into the sky approximately 20 kilometres south west of Taupō.
At first, the likely impact on the airline industry was thought to be minor. That view changed when information about the danger of the volcanic ash cloud was issued by the MetService’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Centre (VAAC) at around 4.30pm.
Mr Boyd says: “We were already in phone discussions with our customers about how we would reroute planes by the time MetService issued their VAAC no-fly zone advisory.
“We were also gathering information about the crisis and adding it to the national reporting system we share with the MetService, the Civil Aviation Authority, GNS Science, Civil Defence, government departments and the like.
“Our Duty Manager and operational staff had started to adjust their tactical plans to suit airborne requests for route changes, while the full contingency plan was being drafted,” he says.
New flight paths were later adopted by the planes most affected by the crisis, Air New Zealand’s jet and propeller fleets and Jetstar’s jet fleet.
“Overall, our plan involved directing pilots to fly within a smaller airspace and moving everyone west by 100 kilometres. It wasn’t pretty. Not everyone was able to fly at their optimal altitudes. But everyone was able to comply with the aviation industry’s strict safety rules and provide a relatively seamless and trouble-free service,” says Mr Boyd.
During three days of heightened volcanic activity, approximately 200 Airways staff from managers through to controllers played a part in Airways’ response to the Tongariro eruption, with a core group of a 100 people most involved.
“Responding to crises like these is a massive task, but that’s what we’re here to do – keep planes and passengers safe. Undoubtedly good leadership from Airways and good teamwork across the industry works is a vital part of achieving that goal.”
In an eruption, the Metservice produces Volcanic Ash Advisories (VAA) and SIGMETs (warnings of significant aviation hazards). These are provided to the Civil Aviation Authority who designate Volcanic Hazard Zones. Airways liaises with airlines about which routes and procedures will be affected and works with them all to find a safe way around the hazard.
Airways is responsible for managing 30 million square kilometres of airspace.
Caption: During the ash cloud Airways directed pilots to fly within a smaller airspace and moved everyone west by 100 kilometres. The map shows the flight paths for jet planes and for the smaller turbo props.