MIDWAY THROUGH LAST December, Papua New Guinea's (PNG) entire air-traffic-services system and, consequently, all air-carrier flying had to be shut down for 5h. This was not because of industrial action, but because the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA) lost communication between its seven centres, and could no longer guarantee traffic separation, weather and NOTAM information, search-and-rescue co-ordination, or other vital services.
On that occasion, the cause was damage to a critical telecommunications repeater station by villagers demanding A$50,000 ($37,000) "compensation" for the presence of the station on a remote nearby mountaintop. On another, at one of the country's few night-flying-capable airports, the runway lights were stolen. When they were replaced, the airport could still not be used at night because the DCA could not afford fuel to mow the grass around them.
Incoming international passengers in the Port Moresby Customs area have found themselves inhaling tear gas, the byproduct of a robbery in progress at an adjacent bank, and violent robberies at the airport are increasingly common. The national airline has been forced to fund much of the redevelopment of an emergency airport required to service the volcano-devastated regional centre of Rabaul, because the Government has no funds. Even the Prime Minister's aircraft has had to be kept away from airports where fuel companies have withdrawn the Government Flying Unit's credit.
Dozens of such incidents and continuing problems, illustrate the tenuous state of PNG's capacity to maintain a basic aviation infrastructure in a country, which is dependent to an almost unique degree, on aviation for its economic life and the provision of essential services. That dependence has lately been heightened by the virtual closure of the main highway to inland centres by armed villagers conducting "road blocks" at which they collect a "toll", a problem now so serious that insurers will no longer underwrite road cargoes. Some population centres can only receive supplies by air. This, like similar problems affecting aviation, is not a civil-unrest problem, but a law-and-order quandary requiring only positive police action, which in turn requires politicians to instigate it. "Unfortunately, it is becoming a major industry in some electorates," says a despairing expatriate.
An airline source says: "The tragedy is that, although in the first 30 post-war years leading up to independence, an excellent infrastructure was established despite enormous geographical difficulties, along with a core of well-trained civil-aviation technical staff in all areas, subsequent funding has either been mismanaged or simply been inadequate to sustain either."
A year ago, the DCA published a detailed catalogue of measures which it thought it would have to implement in the face of continued lack of funds. These included the curtailing and/or closure of air-traffic-control (ATC) services, closure of provincial airports and, possibly, of major airports because of a lack of maintenance; curtailment of airworthiness and operations surveillance because of staff shortages to the extent that the airlines would be virtually self-regulating; and advice to the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) that the country could not meet its international commitments in several safety aspects. The DCA also noted that:
maps and charts were becoming unavailable;
rescue and fire-fighting services were unlikely to be available in emergencies because of unserviced equipment;
many radio-navigation aids had already been out of service for periods exceeding outages allowable under ICAO rules;
expatriate contract staff were becoming almost impossible to recruit because of the devaluation of the national currency, bureaucratic obstacles to employment, and law-and-order concerns.
Current NOTAMs and preflight information bulletins indicate that, in most areas of operation, the situation has now worsened, and that the aviation infrastructure is surviving only through the determination of dedicated and well-trained public servants to delay its collapse. Parliamentarians responsible for providing a budget, however, appear to be less highly motivated. Without their support, the public servants will eventually lose the battle against the compounding problems which have their roots in law and order, government interference, and economic mismanagement. The problems include:
available runway lengths being advised as permanently reduced by secondary growth infringements;
several airfields being unavailable to heavier aircraft because of deteriorating surfaces;
bulletins warning of pigs and dogs on runways, because of unrepaired fencing;
numerous navigation aids being listed as permanently unserviceable, "on test", or "pilot monitored".
On a December preflight-information bulletin in for the capital, Port Moresby, two ATC frequencies were unavailable, four radio-navigation aids were either unavailable or flagged as unreliable, taxiways were out of service, widebody aircraft required towing on the apron because of surface condition and even one of the windsocks was reported to be unserviceable. NOTAMs commonly warn of such deficiencies, and CAA staff are kept busy approving dispensations, some of which are longstanding.
Meanwhile, the military is faring no better. The Papua New Guinea Defence Force (PNGDF) Air Transport Squadron has for lengthy periods suffered 100% unserviceability of its small fleet of CASA C.212s, Israel Aircraft Industries Aravas and Bell Iroquois helicopters. At other times, aircraft have been serviceable, but there has been no money for fuel. Two Iroquois and two of a fleet of three Aravas have been pressed back into service, largely to support the force's continuing conflict with secessionists on the island of Bougainville. The CASAs, which have not been flown since September 1994, are being given low priority, and may never be flown again unless at least preservative maintenance is carried out.
The last Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF)-qualified flying instructor on loan to the PNGDF left in December and is not being replaced. Most of the PNGDF pilots have now also left the service and are flying for civil carriers. Hangar workers, left with nothing to do, are either leaving, or simply not reporting for duty. Many airfields, which are basic to the RAAF's contingency plans for emergency civil-defence aid, are now withdrawn from availability to Lockheed Martin C-130s, because of deteriorating surfaces.
Air Niugini has now advised the regulator that it is no longer willing to operate on the basis of long-term dispensations, and has been forced to curtail night operations to airports other than Port Moresby. The airline has shown growing concern at deteriorating infrastructure standards and, despite offered dispensations, has refused to begin Fokker F28 services to two new destinations until glide-path-guidance lighting is installed. The airline had its first hull loss, when one of its F28s was written off, after overrunning Madang's runway into shallow sea water in an aquaplaning incident in May 1995.
A preliminary report into the incident names as contributory factors two infrastructural aspects: the control tower was unmanned so that no weather or runway-condition information was available to the crew, and water is being retained in deepening lengthwise depressions in the areas of heaviest runway use.
At a time when civil aviation needs structured leadership more than ever, PNG's Government has now downgraded the DCA to an "Office of Civil Aviation" (OCA), incorporated in the transport department. Until the resulting bureaucratic tangle has been resolved, the new organisation (at least temporarily) has no authority to hire urgently needed contract airworthiness and flying-operations inspectors.
Meanwhile, says a Port Moresby OCA source, "...at some ATC and flight-service centres, which are already seriously overloaded by the shutdown of others, staff levels are at only 25-50% of establishment. In the flight operations and airworthiness areas, we're well below 50% of establishment, mainly because we can't hire contract officers." It is not only bureaucracy which is holding back recruitment. The devaluation, deepening concerns about law and order, rising living costs, and political pressure to "nationalise" key positions, have rendered conditions increasingly less attractive, to expatriate staff. National staff accustomed to the more orderly past, are also leaving.
Although Air Niugini general manager Dieter Seefeld has flagged replacement of the domestic fleet - eight F28s and two de Havilland Canada Dash 7s - as part of a five-year corporate plan, the carrier has no prospect of implementing the much-needed upgrade until PNG's aviation infrastructure and other factors improve. Most of the country's runways are already marginal for the existing fleet, and manufacturers have told the airline that they are out of the question for more modern replacements with higher tyre pressures.
Air Niugini has also turned in poor results because the Government, while persistently ruling out fare increases, continues to demand that it provide jet services at unrealistic frequencies, many over routes of less than 370km (200nm). A belated 10% fare rise, approved this month, will do little to soften the effect of a 33% devaluation of the national currency on the price of fuel, spares and expatriate labour, and Air Niugini cannot realistically plan to fund new equipment. When warned by the former chairman of the National Airlines Commission (Air Nuigini's governing body) that these factors, along with unpaid Government travel debts and gross undercapitalisation had brought Air Niugini "close to collapse," Prime Minister Sir Julius Chan's response was to fire the entire board and install a new one, which is understood now to be giving him the same message.
All those factors have already caused the closure in 1993 of Talair, PNG's biggest supplemental airline, when its owner, Sir Dennis Buchanan, decided that 35 years of airline development was enough, handed in his operating certificate, stood down his 1,000-plus staff, and flew his fleet of 23 de Havilland Twin Otters and Embraer Bandeirantes to Australia for disposal. Since then, the indifferent safety record of the hastily formed local-service airlines which grew up in Talair's shadow has been compounded by the desperate shortage of regulatory staff.
Source: Flight International