An Operator’s View: Southern Lakes Helicopters’ Lloyd Matheson

Lloyd Matheson. Credit: Southern Lakes Helicopters

Southern Lakes Helicopters’ operations manager, Lloyd Matheson, on coping with new DOC and CAA charges, why the company is flying in Antarctica, being president of Aviation NZ and what he’d like to see changed in the industry.

We operate a 24–hour, seven-days-a-week search and rescue and medivac service from our Te Anau base and we cover all of Fiordland National Park and Stewart Island. Together with our other company, Queenstown-based Heliworks – both owned by Sir Richard and Lady Hayes of Te Anau – we operate 11 helicopters with a staff of 20.

We also run a business of the shore of Lake Te Anau where mainly free independent travellers come to us if they want to take a scenic flight. We can do a variety of flights from 30 minutes to a full day operation whether it’s onto mountain tops, snow landings, to Dusky Sound, Doubtful Sound and Milford Sound.

The weather dictates those flights so we find we tend to turn away more tourists than we actually fly during the autumn, winter and spring months because of low foggy cloud over the Te Anau basin. Last summer was also very marginal, the weather was very windy and wet so it was not the best period to be flying.

Fiordland is basically the walking capital of the world and a lot of our customers are independent travellers including track walkers who like to fly after they complete their walks. We are also picking up a lot of people on the return trip from Milford Sound to Queenstown. A lot of people, after travelling to Milford Sound on their coach and then a trip on a cruise vessel, just want to get back to Queenstown. We can provide that service with a glacier landing on the way, which is very popular with the Chinese market.

We do land on Department of Conservation (DOC) sites so will be hit by the new concession fee increases coming in July and implemented incrementally over three years. The biggest problems are that most operators have already set their prices for the year ahead and DOC’s new charges, formulated with no industry consultation, include a lot of variances in the types of fees to be charged.

Issues like our computer system not being geared up to cope with a lot more fee categories mean we will initially be trying to manually manage them. We do not mind paying the fees but I do not understand why DOC could not come talk to us to work through any issues or prepare the industry. Instead, the fees are just dumped on us and are almost unworkable.

The same has happened with the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) funding review, which will also bring increased fees from July, although there has at least been a submission process with those.

So, on top of the DOC fees and the fact that most tourist flight operations with those concessions are based down south, it’s the southern operators who have been hit with a double whammy.

Operators are not some sort of money tree but it seems everyone with an aircraft gets hit worse than others. No one objects to having to pay fees but it is how that process is managed that is crucial for an industry that needs to manage its costs.

There are huge overhead costs for aircraft maintenance. We put a small rotating searchlight onto one of our helicopters and it cost $28,000. The aircraft was out of the air for a lengthy period while it was being fitted. This is not a lucrative business and tourist flight operations are just average earners. You certainly don’t see rich pilots getting around. They work long days and it is hard work.

Because there are so many operators now we’ve looked to diversify our services and we now operate in Antarctica over the summer months with two helicopters and a team of pilots and engineers based at Scott Base. We work supporting the scientists and search and rescue backup if anything goes wrong. It is a role we tendered for six years ago and got so we’ve been working with Antarctica NZ ever since.

About a third of my day is spent as president of Aviation NZ.

The president’s role is mainly about managing the nine divisions of Aviation NZ, which is a lobby and activist group trying to work with the CAA to make sure our views are heard. I have a close working relationship with the director of the CAA and his auditors so I can just pick up the phone if there’s an issue.

The work keeps me active, it keeps me fresh and up with the play. I’m a great believer in prevention being better than detection and we’re certainly concerned about flight safety. The more we can improve an operator’s work environment, the better it is for all of us.

If I could change one thing, having a closer consultation process with the CAA and a more open and robust relationship between us would be great. The relationship with the regulator and the operator seems to have deteriorated. I’m not sure why that is but they do not seem to be a very user-friendly organisation. They seem to be controlled by rules and instead of working with industry to try and make things better they will just sit by the rules which can very frustrating.

The hardest thing for General Aviation operators is that the CAA rules have been formulated around fixed wing requirements so they don’t apply well to helicopters. We’ve been pushing for our own separate regulations for helicopters so if we can get those some time down the track, then that would be good.

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