27 September 2010

Air National Grounds Itself for a Few Days

AN AIRLINE which charters planes to New Zealand rich listers was forced to ground its fleet after its flight operations and training manager quit suddenly. Air New Zealand was also forced to cancel a flight and reschedule others when the Jetstream plane it charters from Air National for its Link regional flights was unavailable due to the grounding. Among its fleet of five, Air National manages and charters private jets owned by travel industry tycoon and rich-lister Andrew Bagnall and the Vela family. The sudden grounding is more bad news for the tiny airline, coming on top of losing a contract to manage the Gulfstream IV luxury jet used by Sir Peter Jackson. The airline's biggest aircraft, an 86-seat BAE1460 200, which was used to fly Australian politicians between states in the run-up to the recent election, is still on the ground. The other small jets in the fleet resumed flying on Thursday after being on the ground since September 16. The aviation company, with bases in Auckland and Wellington, could not use its air operator's certificate to fly planes without Civil Aviation Authority approval for a replacement manager. It took nearly six days for Air National to get CAA approval for its staffer Andrew Cliff to replace Bonner Bylsma before the fleet could take to the air again. The BAE146 is still on the ground because it comes under different CAA rules and Cliff is not qualified to manage under those rules, said CAA spokesman Bill Sommer. Neither Air National chief executive Jason Gray nor Bylsma would comment about what led to Bylsma, who has 35 years' flying experience, quitting without notice. Both men have confirmed legal action is brewing. We are weighing up our legal options," said Gray. Bylsma said his lawyer had advised him not to talk. Gray wrote a letter to his customers addressing "speculation" that flew around the industry at news of the grounding. He gave the letter to the Sunday Star-Times. "Our actions were taken in full consultation with the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority, who have been very supportive throughout this process," he said in the letter. The five days on the ground had been difficult for the company and had come at great cost to Air National. "We must ensure that passenger safety is paramount and must be put ahead of any commercial considerations," he wrote. He emphasised in his note that the company's actions were voluntary and at no point was Air National's Air Operator's Certificate withdrawn or suspended. Sommer confirmed last week the grounding had been voluntary. He said yesterday there was a lot more to the situation than he could say publicly. Gray said also that he was unsure when Air New Zealand would resume using the Jetstream aircraft but expected it would take at least a couple of weeks for scheduling to be rearranged. Air National lost its contract with Jackson when he upgraded to a top-end Gulfstream G550 jet at a cost of $68 million. He transferred his contract to Australia-based Execujet in April and the plane is now based in Melbourne.

Despite the Stuff heading the grounding was Air National's initiative. Flights between Hokitika and Christchurch have been effected most with some cancellations or Jetstream flights being replaced with Beech 1900s and Q300s.

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