Getting off the ground: aviation’s recovery in the Cook Islands

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When the COVID-19 pandemic appeared in March 2020, many Pacific governments had to quickly enact proactive ‘state of emergencies’ with stringent international border and travel restrictions to prevent the spread of the deadly virus.

As public health measures were being put in place, behind the scenes, Pacific civil aviation agencies were grappling with big questions. Borders were being closed. How would they continue to manage their aviation compliance to ensure their airports, planes, and pilots were fit to fly critical domestic services? How would they be ready for safe and secure international travel when their borders reopened?

Challenges to achieving aviation compliance

For small island nations that are often spread over large geographic regions, aviation is vital for domestic and international connectivity and it is a critical economic enabler. Many Pacific States face challenges to independently deliver their own internationally compliant aviation oversight and resolve safety deficiencies due to insufficient financial, technical, and/or qualified human resources.

These challenges provided the impetus for the creation of the Pacific Aviation Safety Office (PASO) with the signing of the Pacific Island Civil Aviation Safety and Security Treaty (PICASST) in 2005 to provide a collective approach to regional aviation safety oversight.

For Member States of PASO, aviation compliance is supported by PASO’s audits and inspections program, which, when requested, deploys internationally recognised technical oversight experts to support States with their civil aviation surveillance activities. PASO delivers expert advice from a team of inspectors in the areas of aerodromes and ground aids (AGA), air navigation services (ANSI-T, ANS-ATS, ANS-MET), airworthiness (AWI), aviation security (ASA), and flight operations (FOI). PASO quickly pivoted in 2020 from a “boots on the ground” approach to remotely supporting Member’s civil aviation personnel to carry out Off-Site Certification Audits (OSCA) in the COVID era.

Traditionally, PASO’s support is provided on a fee-for-service basis, but with the cessation of international travel, disruption of domestic economies with sudden lockdowns, and increased public health costs, many Pacific governments were struggling financially with unexpected COVID-19 costs. The Australian Government generously stepped in to support Pacific regional aviation recovery with the AUD 2 million COVID-19 PASO Support Package. This strategic funding enabled PASO to provide services to support Members with their annual aviation safety and security compliance work plans at no additional cost.

The Cook Islands experience

The Cook Islands have been described as “a taste of tropical perfection.” With world-famous beaches and crystal-clear lagoons, set against the backdrop of majestic volcanic mountains, and a laid-back, friendly Polynesian culture, it’s no wonder that Lonely Planet declared it the number one country to visit in 2022.

The islands are a far-flung destination, located in the Pacific Ocean between French Polynesia and American Samoa and halfway between New Zealand and Hawaii. With 15 islands spread across 2,500,000km of ocean (an area the size of Europe) and a local population of 17,000, they rely on aviation to connect remote island communities and international visitors.

Before COVID-19, the Cook Islands had a thriving year-round tourism industry that accounted for almost 70% of the national economy. A favorite holiday destination with visitors from New Zealand and Australia, and high-value tourists from the United States, Canada and Europe, the Cook Islands had around 170,000 visitors arriving annually, with most arriving via Rarotonga International Airport. Before the pandemic, they were linked by daily direct flights from Auckland, twice weekly flights from Tahiti, and weekly non-stop flights from Los Angeles and Sydney served by four passenger airlines.

Domestically, the islands are connected via a critical network of nine airports and airfields by Air Rarotonga linking nine outer island communities with medevac, cargo, and passenger flights. The locally-owned airline has operated for over 40 years and is the sole domestic airline and codeshares with Air New Zealand between Rarotonga International Airport and Aitutaki Airport, a key tourism destination.

As the Cook Islands geared up to reopen their borders to two-way quarantine-free travel with New Zealand in May 2021, behind the scenes Dennis Hoskin, the (former) Director of the Cook Islands Civil Aviation Authority (CI CAA) was putting a plan into motion to get PASO Inspectors on the ground to conduct on-site inspections with his team.

Air Rarotonga pilot James Herman with PASO’s flight examiner Inspector Graeme Young.
Credit: Mike Haines/PASO

Set up for success

Dennis is an aviation veteran. Throughout his 53-year career, he has witnessed improvements to the way aviation safety is approached and has broad experience as a pilot and aerodromes inspector, he held key management positions within the New Zealand CAA, and he worked as an international consultant for ICAO. In 2017, he was appointed Director of the Cook Islands Civil Aviation Authority (CICAA) and has held key positions on the PASO Council on behalf of the Cook Islands. In 2021 he was due to retire from the CI CAA and return to consultancy work, and he was keen to ensure they were set up for success before he finished up.

As the Director, Dennis was ultimately responsible for ensuring that all aspects of the Cook Islands aviation system were safe and ready for an international restart. Like most Pacific States in 2020/21, time was running out for an impressive list of certifications and renewals he needed to sign off on.

Dennis had a few problems though. To begin, he had been stuck in New Zealand with border closures since February 2020. A quarantine-free travel bubble between New Zealand and the Cook Islands for essential workers from February 2021 meant he had “a travel window” to return and get critically needed inspectors on the ground with PASO’s help.

“From my point of view, the buck stops with me as Director. I needed to do due diligence and have very detailed audits and safety checks done to show we were still operating safely,” says Dennis.

“All our pilots’ licenses are issued by New Zealand CAA, and three pilots were due in April 2021 for their flight examiner rating renewals under Rule Part 61. These pilots check the rest of our pilots – they become the examiners once they have been certified every two years. It was critical to get Graeme Young, PASO’s flight examiner inspector in quickly in March to oversee the three renewals. It was a very narrow window with only two flights per week making it difficult to coordinate.”

PASO’s Senior Operations Coordinator, Jessica Fred. Credit: PASO

PASO’s Senior Operations Coordinator, Jessica Fred, took up the challenge.

“This time was much more complicated than usual to get our team on the ground. It took about two weeks to organize, especially with travel agent arrangements and ticketing changes, COVID-19 travel insurance challenges, and liaising with the Cook Islands and Inspectors about immigration entry requirements,” explains Jessica.

“Ultimately ensuring our inspectors were (COVID-19) safe and quality services were delivered were our main goals. We started with Graeme in March for the three flight examiner renewals and the re-certification of the Air Rarotonga Part 119 air operating certificate, and then another inspectors’ trip in May. It was a good trial for when our Members’ borders open-up and we can return to our normal face-to-face auditing service delivery.”

Boots on the ground

In early May 2021, the largest contingent of PASO inspectors arrived in the Cook Islands with Dennis to work with their CI CAA counterparts, the Ministry of Transport, the Airport Authority of Cook Island (AACI), and aviation industry operators to carry out the required safety oversight and capacity building. The five PASO Inspectors were tasked with a long list of audits to complete over eight days.

“In 2020, we were due to do a five-year air operator recertification (Part 119 AOC & Part 119 Maintenance) audit of the local airline, Air Rarotonga. With borders closed, we had to get PASO Inspectors to do a desk-top review of the documentation and use our local inspectors to make sure we were closing-up findings. It was quite critical for 2021 to get PASO Inspectors on the ground. I wasn’t keen about stretching out two years without any close inspections, especially with recertifications required,” explains Dennis.

PASO’s airworthiness inspector and a specialist in safety management systems, Austin Healey, was especially busy completing airworthiness inspections for six small aircraft, completing Air Rarotonga’s aircraft maintenance organisation’s annual compliance audit (Part 145) and air operator recertification (Part 119 – maintenance aspects).

Additionally, Rarotonga International Airport and Aitutaki Airport were due to be certified under Part 139 as well as for security (Part 140 and Part 109), air traffic services (Part 172), and telecommunications (Part 171). The Airport Authority of Cook Island (AACI) was also replacing cracking runway pavement at Rarotonga International Airport and Dennis was keen for Mike Haines, PASO’s aerodromes and ground aids (AGA) Inspector, to review the works with local CI CAA counterpart, Makea Pauka.

“The Airport Authority was able to take the opportunity to start renewing the pavement and put the investment in which should last 30 to 40 years because there was the pause on flights, apart from for essential services air travel. Renewing pavement doesn’t happen very often and requires specific oversight to ensure it is done right,” says Dennis.

Rescue Fire Manager George Nichols, Mike Haines and Aviation Technical Inspector Makea Pauka
Credit: Mike Haines/PASO

Learning on the job

Building Members’ aviation inspection capacity and transferring skills is part of the brief for PASO inspectors. With so much onsite audit activity, it was a great environment for on-the-job mentoring and training for key CI CAA personnel.

“The initial brief was to do the two regular aerodrome audits for Rarotonga and Aitukai as well as provide some onsite training to Makea who was shadowing me. So it was a straightforward audit but having the security, air traffic control and aeronautical telecoms inspections team there as well, allowed us to assess some areas where the technical areas overlap. It was good to provide an independent look at the runway works as well. ” said PASO’s aerodromes and ground aids (AGA) Inspector, Mike Haines.

Together they completed the Rarotonga aerodromes audit using the PASO aerodrome checklist to logically sequence the inspection of the airfield, and the maintenance program, and the review and validation of the rescue fire manual, emergency plan, and the overarching quality management system. On the strength of this one-on-one mentoring, Makea was able to do the on-the-ground audit for Aitutaki Airport independently, with remote oversight from Mike.

The trip was rounded off with a runway condition reporting workshop with 25 personnel attending from the CICAA, the Ministry of Transport, and the Airport Authority.

The Cook Islands Civil Aviation Authority’s Aviation Technical Inspector Makea Pauka, Aviation Security Inspector Simiona Teiotu, and Aviation Officer Te Anau Rani working remotely with PASO Inspectors using OSCA. Credit: Cook Islands Civil Aviation Authority

Flying with confidence

For Dennis, the whole exercise was very positive, and it was a high note to finish on before handing over the CICAA Director’s reigns to Donald Guinea.

“It was great to get from March to the end of May and have all our inspections up to date with all reports completed within a few days of their return. It showed PASO had the capability to quickly respond and capitalize on this narrow travel window to get the task done.”

“The other great thing is that it was funded by the Australian Government, which was fantastic and very much appreciated. Their support significantly helped our operators because the small islands are really struggling due to COVID-19 and the operators particularly,” said Dennis.

The new Director of Cook Islands Civil Aviation, Donald Guinea, explains the impact of PASO’s audit and inspections programme:

“The collaborative work between PASO and the Cook Island Civil Aviation department with this logistical nightmare of a situation in 2021 was incredible. Aviation is a safety-critical industry that it functions on these inspections for the purpose of compliance from our service providers but also for public confidence. Our traveling public needs to be reassured that despite the challenges COVID-19 has placed on our industry, we are still upholding the highest safety standards.

“The Cook Islands are very fortunate to have PASO working for us and having the means to provide us with some of the most experienced Inspectors in the industry for our region. We are very appreciative to them for assisting us in keeping our traveling public safe. Also, it would be remiss of me not to also thank the Australian Government for funding these tasks, this has been very helpful for us all and we appreciate it,” concluded Donald.


About the Contributor

The Pacific Aviation Safety Office (PASO) is an international organisation that provides quality aviation safety and security service for Member States in the Pacific. PASO is the sole Pacific regional organization responsible for regulatory aviation safety oversight services for the ten Pacific Governments who are signatories to the Pacific Islands Civil Aviation Safety and Security Treaty (PICASST). These States include: the Pacific nations of Cook Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu and make up the PASO Council. Associate Members of PASO are Australia, Fiji and New Zealand.  For more information on PASO and their efforts, click here.


 

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