Backup plan should have been in place before Christchurch air traffic incident, travel expert says

Questions have been raised about whether a backup plan should have been in place after flights were affected when a fire alarm went off at a Christchurch air traffic control centre yesterday.

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House of Travel’s Brent Thomas discussed how 36 flights were affected after an Airways fire alarm went off. Source: Breakfast

Nearly 40 domestic flights across the country were delayed or turned back after a fire alarm went off at Airways Christchurch Control Centre, raising larger questions about the vulnerability of the system.

House of Travel commercial director Brent Thomas said it was "quite surprising that such a major infrastructure falls down because of one fire alarm".

"You would have thought potentially, there should have been a better backup system which would have allowed the whole system to carry on, rather than having all these major disruptions," he told TVNZ 1's Breakfast this morning.

While 36 domestic flights were delayed and three others were forced to return to base, there was also "a whole lot of people who were then delayed further through the day because their plane is also delayed," Mr Thomas said.

"When something like this goes wrong and you have just one little thing, like a fire alarm, and then planes can’t fly, you do have to question, what is the backup plan? What was the infrastructure that they had in support of just this one situation in Christchurch?"

In a statement yesterday, Airways NZ said the fire alarm was set off by smoke from a power supply failure, leading their radar and communications system to revert to their backup system mode.

"While Airways was able to continue to safely manage domestic airborne traffic, as the system was in back-up mode a conservative approach to managing New Zealand's airspace was taken, which included halting departures within New Zealand airspace," Airways said.

The cause of the issue was identified by 2pm, and operations returned to normal by 2.15pm.

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Nearly 40 domestic flights were turned back or delayed. Source: 1 NEWS

Mr Thomas said the officials involved should now review the incident and look into the redundancies in their system so that a similar incident does not happen in the future.

"We saw the fuel crisis in Auckland and there was no backup there, and we've seen things like hospitals that fall. When they go down, of course, they’ve got generators to come on," he said.

"What is Airways going to do in terms of making sure that when something like this happens again, they don't have to ground 36 aircraft?

"Most corporations would have plans in place for when a major system goes down, that they make sure that they’ve got a redundancy there that covers those kind of eventualities, and that's what they’re going to have to do – sit back now and go 'what went wrong?' and make sure that they've planned for such things in the future."

Mr Thomas said Auckland air traffic, which controls international flights, must now examine their own systems in place, adding that it would have a larger-scale impact than what occurred in Christchurch.

"That would even be potentially even more serious, just simply because the size of the aircraft and the number of people who would be impacted so quickly."