Turbulence in Heaven for flightseeing operators in Milford Sound

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This story {first appeared|premoere appearance} in the January/February 2019 edition of Australian Aviation

Air Milford flying over Milford Sound. (Air Milford)

During his visit to the colonies in 1861, Rudyard Kipling described New Zealand’ s Milford Sound as the eighth wonder of the world. A decade ago, TripAdvisor judged it the world’ s top travel destination.

Visitors to this remote and rain-drenched pocket {of the world|on the planet|worldwide} heritage status Fiordland National Park, in the south-west {of the|from the|in the} South Island, succumb quickly to superlative overload when describing the sound’ s panoramic grandeur – its carpet of beech and rain forests, razorback peaks and waterfalls tumbling over granite cliffs into the inky sound. It is sometimes called a fiord but is, in fact , an inlet from the Tasman Sea carved by glaciers 100, 000 years ago.

Access to the sound is {via the|with the|from your} steep Homer Tunnel, cut through a high alpine pass – the only place in the park where the road travels to the ocean.

Around one million visitors {are expected|are required} to visit Milford Sound in 2019 (up from 875, 000 in 2017). Nearly half of all tourists {visiting the|browsing} country put Milford {on their|on the|issues} itinerary.

By plane from Queenstown, {it is a|this is a|it is just a} quick but spectacular 40 nautical mile journey over mountains and valleys {with a|having a|using a} return journey cost – inclusive a cruise – starting from NZ$500. It takes nearly four hours to get there overland from Queenstown (295km) and just under half that distance from Te Anau (121km) on a road {prone to|vulnerable to|susceptible to} avalanches, rain deluges and vehicle accidents.

As a result of this travel timeframe the area swarms with people and activity between 11am and 3pm. Arriving on buses, in rental cars, helicopters, planes or walking out from the four-day famed Milford Track “ Great Walk”, they disgorge onto a flotilla of tourist boats that nose up to the falls and cruise past seals, dolphins, penguins and other birdlife. Crew {give a|provide a|offer a} geography lesson in the sound’ s history florand fauna. Then their passengers leave, returning the park to a pristine sanctuary after 4pm {until the|till the|before the} next day’ s onslaught.

And therein lies a growing problem. Milford Sound is too much of {a good thing|a positive thing|a valuable thing} and the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DOC) {along with|together with|in addition to} groups such as Federated Mountain Clubs (FMC) want change. If they could they would turn back {the clock|the time} to a quieter time.

Eight fixed-wing and 10 helicopter companies regularly operate to and from Milford Sound. (Air Milford)

Eight fixed-wing and 10 helicopter companies regularly operate {to and from|from} Milford Sound. (Air  Milford)

Aircraft scrutiny

No businesses are in their sights {more than|a lot more than|greater than} flightseeing operators. A regular core of eight fixed-wing and 10 helicopter companies operate to and from Milford Sound, boosted by casual operators: 24 operators in total.

Between them they were allocated 12, 637 annual landings at Milford in 2007 while a supplementary pool of 2, 500 landings was negotiated {in 2012|this year|news}, allowing them to dip in for more landings once they have used 80 per cent of their concession allocation.

But on September 21 2018 DOC dropped a bombshell. From January  1, the supplementary pool would be discontinued.

Aaron Fleming, DOC’ s director, Southern South Island, told Australian Aviation that over the past two years the supplementary pool had become {more difficult|more challenging|harder} to manage for both concessionaires and DOC, and has disadvantaged some operators.

He said there {had been|have been|was} increasing demand from tourism operators in recent years for scenic landings at Milford’ s Piopiotahi Aerodrome.

“ The pool was completely used up for the first time {last year|this past year|a year ago} (2017) and some of the larger concessionaires missed out on the chance to obtain additional landings, ” he said.

He also said the Queenstown-Milford Resident Aircraft Users Group (QMRAUG) had been advised early in 2018 that the supplementary pool was being reviewed {as part of the|included in the|within the} regular review of aircraft concessions.

Operators {in that|in this|for the reason that} group have vehemently disagreed that DOC had {the right to|the justification to} review or to axe the pool under the terms of the 2007 Fiordland National Park Management Plan, and maintain they were not consulted as the plan required.

As a consequence, {they have|they have got|they may have} engaged a lawyer to consider {a case|an instance} alleging breach of fair trading.

{One of the|Among the|One of many} badly affected operators {in the|within the|inside the} group is Queenstown-based Air Milford’ s chief executive, Hank Sproull, a veteran of {40 years|4 decades} flightseeing.

He said his company will run out of landings by April 2019. As a consequence four 12-seater Cessna Caravans {will be|is going to be|will probably be} left sitting on the ramp.

“ DOC has not helped us one bit in the fact that our landings aren’ t sufficient {to carry out|to undertake|to handle} our business, ” Sproull said.

{And this|Which|And also this} after he invested $10  million in aircraft to comply with DOC requirements for air operators to use better technology and quieter aircraft carrying more passengers, thus reducing the number of landings and noise disruption.

Operators had also {agreed to|decided to|consented to} avoid the walking tracks of Routeburn and Milford by flying higher and circling in to Milford from the sea.

“ The concession to operate Milford flights had been a bone of contention since 2002, ” Sproull said.

“ DOC had no say about aircraft {in the|within the|inside the} national park until then. There were a lot of small aircraft like Cessna  207s that used to fly up Arthur Valley where the Milford Track came through.

“ Aircraft noise caused {a lot of|lots of|plenty of} friction with the workers {in the|within the|inside the} park so that’ s when DOC set out to limit access to Milford, ” Sproull said.

“ DOC wanted to reduce the {number of|quantity of|amount of} operators to three with five landings a day, but {back then|in those days|in the past} there were 12 fixed-wing {and some|plus some|and several} helicopter operators. ”

It took QMRAUG until 2012 to get a workable concession system after a hard-fought battle.

Sproull said the latest move to axe the supplementary pool did not reflect the terms of the concession document the group signed in 2012, and bore no reflection {of the|from the|in the} growth of flight operators or tourism expansion.

“ We’ ve gone ahead and invested in quiet aircraft and new technology as DOC requested and now {they have|they have got|they may have} pulled the rug from under our feet, ” Sproull said.

Te Anau-based Southern Lakes Helicopters operations manager Lloyd Matheson agreed.

He said in negotiating the concessions the original idea was to look at a natural {growth of|regarding} 4. 5 per cent {a year|annually|per year} for each operator.

“ But we agreed that a 4. 5 {per cent|%|percent} growth would instead {go into a|go to a} bucket that all operators could request (the supplementary pool).

“ We therefore had a system that once you used 80 {per cent|%|percent} of your allocation you could {apply to|affect|apply at} the supplementary bucket {for more|to get more|for further}. ”

Matheson said that while the plan {did not|failed to|would not} specifically mention the supplementary pool, it did mention the 4. 5 {per cent|%|percent} growth it was based upon – and that was how the QMRAUG had negotiated the concessions with then National Government Conservation Minister, Kate Wilkinson. He said it was still a “ legitimate position” and DOC could not {come in|are available in|can be found in} and axe those flights until a new park plan was in force.

A new park plan {is now|is currently|has become} a year overdue from its original start date following widespread consultation with many parties on its framework. It is {expected to|likely to|anticipated to} be another three years before it is enshrined in legislation.

Operator {costs|expenses|charges}

“ It cost operators between NZ$120, 000 and NZ$130, 000 in legal fees to get to where we were on the [plan] memorandum of understanding but now they have decided to pull the supplementary pool, ” Matheson said.

Both he and Sproull cited flaws when the packages of 10-year landing concessions were allocated for the hours of 8. 30am to 6pm at Milford. {That was|Which was|That has been} because a few operators broke rank and applied for another operator’ s package {even though|although|despite the fact that} applicants were supposed to own aircraft, have them flying {on the route|on the way} and own a current air operator’ s certificate.

“ You could only apply for one package {and if|and when|of course, if} you missed out, you missed out, ” Matheson said.

“ But DOC never stuck to its game plan so those people who didn’ t {meet the criteria were|qualify were|met the criteria were} allowed to take allocations as business opportunists for on-selling, or scalping, {to those|to the people|to people} who needed more landings. ”

Air Milford has made a multi-million dollar investment in Cessna Caravans to meet New Zealand Department of Conservation requirements. (Air Milford)

Air Milford {has made|made|has turned} a multi-million dollar investment in Cessna Caravans {to meet|to fulfill|to satisfy} New Zealand Department of Conservation requirements. (Air Milford)

Thirty-four operators applied for 25 packets of landings, ranging from {a few|several|a couple of} to around 1, 700. {Of those|Of these|Of the people}, between 700 and 900 landings went the way of the on-selling opportunists.

Sproull ended up as one of the worst beneficiaries of the arrangement {because of|due to|as a result of} his compliance with DOC’ s conditions that {as part of the|included in the|within the} 4. 5 per  cent increase small operators {would get|can have} rid of noisy, small aircraft. Sproull invested in bigger Cessna Caravans but didn’ t have the allocation of landings to go with them, so relied on the pool.

Matheson said that to the detriment of Southern Lakes Helicopters most of its flights were over-flights to Milford {so they|so that they|so they really} never actually landed. As only landings applied {under the|underneath the|beneath the} plan, it meant {they were|these were|we were holding} near the bottom of the rung for numbers.

“ I think DOC found it difficult to manage the supplementary pool, because of the 80 {per cent|%|percent} rule, ” he said.

“ {With us|Around} having only 41 landings our 80 per cent got gobbled up pretty quickly and we used one landing a week from the pool.

“ We have {applied for|requested|sent applications for} around 120 landings {from the|from your|through the} pool and have never been knocked back, but it was easy for us to use up 80 per cent while someone with 1, 700 landings {takes a|requires a|needs a} lot longer to reach that percentage. By the time they {get there|make it happen|arrive} the allocation in the pool is empty. ”

Matheson said {he could|can} understand DOC’ s predicament but suggested the government body was “ running scared” after New Zealand’ s Ombudsman, Leo Donnelly ruled in August that DOC had breached the Fiordland park plan rules by upping the number of allowed helicopter landings to Ngapunatoru Plateau so more tourists could visit Mt Tutoko Glacier. The Ombudsman’ s decision followed a complaint by FMC, a group of 80 clubs with 11, 000 members throughout New Zealand.

Air Milford pilot James Hill landing at Milford Sound. (Air Milford)

Air Milford pilot James Hill landing at Milford Sound. (Air Milford)

DOC director Fleming disagreed that the supplementary pool axing was in breach of the plan.

“ Concessionaires will be allowed to sub-permit or assign their unused landing allocations to other operators, provided both parties and DOC {agree to|consent to|accept} the transfer, ” he said.

“ Over the past five years {there have been|there has been|there were} approximately 2, 000 {or more|or even more|or maybe more} allocated landings that have been unused. ”

Matheson reiterated that the aircraft {section of|portion of|part of} the national park plan specifically noted DOC {had to|needed to|were required to} negotiate with operators {and the|as well as the|plus the} aviation user group.

Milford Helicopters {is the|may be the|will be the} only Milford-based flight operator. Its owner, Jeff Shanks has a packet of 1, 770 landings annually.

He said the situation with air operators at Milford Sound had imploded and was now out of control.

He said that what has transpired between DOC and the air operators {has made|made|has turned} a farce of the system, with some being allowed quotas even if they were not {in the business|in the industry|in the commercial}.

“ DOC has dropped the ball. If things continue {as they are|because they are} it will shut down the industry, ” he said.

Matheson said the DOC had made an arbitrary decision without consultation. “ They say it is not part of the park plan but then they never abided by the plan. ”

“ They can’ t have their cake and eat it too. Unfortunately, because they haven’ t negotiated with us we have {had to|needed to|were required to} go down this path in seeking legal redress {for our|for the} future. ”

Fleming said DOC {would work|works} with the sector around these concerns, but said {any solution|a solution} needed to be within the rules {of the|from the|in the} park plan because DOC’ s responsibility is to manage the impact of activity on conservation values.

Most of Milford Helicopters flights over the sound don’t land there. (Milford Helicopters)

Most of Milford Helicopters flights over the sound don’ t land there. (Milford Helicopters)

Primitive strip

The supplementary pool isn’ t the only bone of contention at Milford Sound.

Sproull said that with the exception of a few more helipads, the aerodrome is as {it was|it had been|it absolutely was} when he started flying there 40 years ago.

It is a 792-metre airstrip {without a|with no|with out a} terminal, toilets or even a shelter. If it rains – {and it|also it|and it also} does frequently – tourists must wait under umbrellas for their aircraft while fending off pervasive sandflies.

DOC charges NZ$15 an aircraft landing at Milford. From 2020 {it has|they have|it offers} signalled the charge {will increase|increases|raises} to NZ$20 for a Cessna Caravan, followed by a further increase to NZ$175 in 2021.

Sproull said the user group will also {fight against|combat} that increase because it is not in line with the consumer price index as required under the park plan.

He also said none of the money raised goes into facilities for passengers.

{In the case of|When it comes to|Regarding} Southern Lakes Helicopters, {it pays|it is well worth your time} a NZ$10 fee {per person|per head} (NZ$70 for its seven-seat helicopters) plus the NZ$15 activity fee at Milford as well as the NZ$50 concession fee. The company also pays management fees of NZ$450-500 a year. Every operator pays Airways NZ$65 for control tower operations at Queenstown and NZ$45 at Milford Sound. There are also Ministry of Transport fees.

“ It’ s tax after tax after tax. We don’ t mind paying if we had decent facilities to go with it, ” Matheson said.

“ But we don’ t. ”

Milford Sound’s Piopiotahi Aerodrome is little changed in four decades. (Milford Helicopters)

Milford Sound’ s Piopiotahi Aerodrome is little changed in four decades. (Milford Helicopters)

Sproull said his company had put about 80, 000 fixed-wing flights through Milford, yet the aerodrome remained rudimentary.

“ These state-owned enterprises are sucking out of us but {do nothing|bum} in the way of development. Money {goes into|switches into|adopts} more and more parking spaces for increasing traffic numbers.

“ We don’ t mind a fair increase, but we are business people {who need|who require} a fair deal. ”

Apron restrictions

Matheson said the apron parking for fixed-wing was totally restrictive and at times, congested. Helipads had increased from two to five, but DOC had told him expansion was constrained by an unique moth that lives at the end of the runway.

“ {The whole|The entire|The complete} industry could probably improve by managing some issues better. At present all the boats have scheduled sailings {geared to|tailored for} travel out of Queenstown by road. The cruise vessels are staggered to meet that demand, but by 4pm nobody is there, ” he said.

“ Between boat and air operators we need a bit of give and take so we {are not|are certainly not|aren’t} all shooting ourselves {in the|within the|inside the} foot, ” Matheson said.

Air Milford pilot Alex Turnbull flyiing over Milford Sound. (Air Milford)

Air Milford pilot Alex Turnbull flyiing over Milford Sound. (Air Milford)

Flights {capped|assigned|prescribed a maximum}

DOC’ s decision to cut the supplementary pool has, in effect, capped flights to Milford Sound. Capping was originally {in the|within the|inside the} 2007 park management plan, but was overturned by the previous government in July 2011 in favour of the pool {for the same|for the similar} reasons behind the current issue: operators were unable to take flight.

The then Conservation Minister Wilkinson said capping could have sent operators {out of business|bankrupt} without actually addressing the impacts of activity {on the|around the|within the} environment.

{She also|In addition, she} believed the restriction was unnecessary because weather acted as a natural cap. Milford has one of the highest mean annual rainfalls in the world (6, 412mm), meaning aircraft {can only|can simply|can easily} fly on roughly 200 to 250 days {each year|every year|annually}.

Conservation, tourism, cultural and environmental bodies, outdoors groups, local government and consultants have formed groups to assess the situation and {decide how|choose} the ecosystem of the world heritage national park will {fit with|match|complement} the increasing number of visitors.

There has been talk of capping the number of tourists, similar to moves undertaken around the Grand Canyon and Italy’ s Cinque Terra. Numbers on the walking tracks are already restricted.

Matheson said {it was|it had been|it absolutely was} about consultation.

“ We thought {we were|i was} making really good headway {with the|using the|with all the} tourism industry association and FMC and if we all {work together|interact|come together}… will work around it.

“ It’ s all about quality and a good experience. ”

The aircraft users told the FMC that if it emailed the location of a particular group on a particular day, the information would be distributed to aircraft user members. {They would|They might|They will} then avoid that route.

No emails have been received.

“ Operators are there {to make a|to create a|to produce a} dollar, ” Matheson said.

“ They can’ t work in a deficit but you can’ t keep loading up the national park otherwise you will have {the same|exactly the same|a similar} situation as the Grand Canyon. ”

But a blueprint for the future won’ t happen quickly. {The current|The present|The existing} plan attracted more than 2, 100 submissions, the highest number ever received in New Zealand for a national park plan.

{It is likely|Chances are|It’s likely} there will be even more submissions {this time|this time around|now} round, such is the {level of|degree of|amount of} emotion of New Zealanders around their beloved great outdoors.

[embedded content]
VIDEO: A look at an aircraft landing at Milford Sound from the Air Milford YouTube channel .

This story first appeared {in the|within the|inside the} January/February 2019 edition of Australian Aviation. To read more stories like this, become a member here .