A drone came within five metres of an incoming 777-200 plane as it approached Auckland, potentially putting 278 passengers and crew at risk.
The Air New Zealand flight NZ92 from Haneda, Tokyo, encountered the drone as it approached Auckland Airport on Sunday afternoon.
The incident was the second example of reckless drone use potentially endangering passenger safety this month, a statement from Air New Zealand said.
On March 6, all flight operations at Auckland Airport were halted for half an hour after an Air New Zealand pilot reported a drone within controlled airspace.
During that incident, about 20 approaching flights had to delay their landings, while the pilots of one – also the NZ92 from Haneda – chose to divert to another airport altogether.
In November 2017, police received two reports of drones flying in the controlled airspace near Auckland Airport on the same day.
Air New Zealand is now demanding tougher drone regulations, saying legislators need to protect travellers and issue stronger penalties for law-breaking drone operators.
“NZ92 was just metres away from a serious incident on Sunday. The pilots spotted the drone at a point in the descent where it was not possible to take evasive action,” chief operations and integrity standards officer Captain David Morgan said.
It passed so close to the incoming aircraft that they were concerned it may have been ingested into the engine.”
A later inspection of the aircraft showed the drone did not go into the engine.
“It’s clear the time has now come for tougher deterrents for reckless drone use around airports to safeguard travellers, including imposing prison terms in the case of life-threatening incidents,” Morgan said.
Airways, the company which operates air traffic control at Auckland Airport, said at least one drone a week is spotted flying illegally through controlled airspace in New Zealand.
Chief executive Graeme Sumner said drone operators did not have to be registered, which made it difficult to track down those who broke the rules.
Sumner said if drones stayed below 400 feet – about 122 metres – and four kilometres clear of airports, as required by current regulations, then there wouldn’t be a problem.
If the problem was left unaddressed the issues around operators who defied the rules had the potential to get even worse in the future, he said.
Drones were getting heavier and faster as technology advanced, which would make them an even greater threat to airliners in future.
“We don’t have the capacity to see these objects in the sky.”
Sumner said Airways would soon trial new technologies that could detect very small objects, but the radar technology was in its infancy and rolling it out could cost tens of millions of dollars.
The only action air traffic operators could take in some cases was to shut down controlled airspace for a period of half an hour after a drone sighting, as they did on March 6.
Half an hour is the average battery time for a drone before they die.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said there needed to be more education around the rules for flying drones.
Improved awareness was the most effective way to prevent incidents like Sunday’s near-miss, it said.
“We will be supplementing our existing educational efforts by running a digital media campaign in the coming months to raise awareness of the rules around drone use and the potentially serious consequences of breaching them,” Civil Aviation Authority director Graeme Harris said.
“New Zealand is not alone in having difficulty coming to terms with the rapid rise in drone use in our skies.
“This is a very new technology that is available for both commercial and recreational purposes. We do not want to unreasonably curb the use of drones but we are absolutely committed to ensuring they are used safely.”
A review of drone rules was nearing completion, and the Ministry of Transport was leading an all-of-government group to look at future regulations, Harris said.
“There is no excuse for anyone flying a drone near an airport without authorisation or in the flightpath of aircraft. Such action is highly irresponsible and is the height of stupidity.”
Harris said the CAA would act against anyone who put the lives of plane passengers at risk.
CAA regulations state drones must be flown only in daylight and no higher than 120 metres (400 feet) above ground level, unless certain conditions are met.
A drone must always be in eyesight of the person flying it.
Drone operators who breach the regulations can be fined up to $5000.
Drone operators can request flight clearances from air traffic control and log their flights at airshare.co.nz.
Dangerous use of drones can be reported to the CAA either by email at [email protected] or by calling 0508 472 338.