Getting off the ground – aviation recovery in the Cook Islands


    How did Pacific Islands get ready for international border re-openings and ensure their aviation compliance? The Pacific Aviation Safety Office (PASO) explores this strategic issue in our latest case study with a focus on the Cook Islands’ aviation recovery experience in 2021. 

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

    As public health measures swung into action, behind the scenes Pacific civil aviation agencies were grappling with big questions. With border closures, how would they continue to manage their aviation compliance to ensure their airports, planes and pilots were fit for flying for critical domestic services, and ready for safe and secure international travel when their borders reopened?

    Rarotonga International Airport, Cook Islands. Photo: Shutterstock

    Challenges to Achieving Aviation Compliance

    Being small island nations, often spread over large geographic regions, aviation is vital for domestic and international connectivity and 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 Members’ 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.

    Rarotonga International Airport, Cook Islands. Photo: Shutterstock

    The Cook Islands Experience

    The Cook Islands have been described as “a taste of tropical perfection2. 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.

    It’s 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, it relies on aviation to connect remote island communities and international visitors.

    Pre COVID-19, the Cook Islands had a thriving year-round tourism industry that accounted for almost 70% of the national economy. A favourite 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. Pre COVID-19, it was 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 code shares with Air New Zealand between Rarotonga International Airport and Aitutaki Airport, a key tourism destination.

    As the Cook Islands geared-up to reopen its 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.

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

    Set Up for Success

    Dennis is an aviation veteran. Over a career spanning 53 years, he has witnessed improvements to the way aviation safety is approached and has broad experience as a pilot, aerodromes Inspector, held key management positions within the New Zealand CAA, and as an international consultant for the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO). From 2017, he was appointed Director of the Cook Islands Civil Aviation Authority (CI CAA) and has held key positions on the PASO Council on behalf of the Cook Islands. In 2021 he was due to retire from 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 was 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. For a start, 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 check done to show we were still operating safely,” says Dennis.

    “All our pilots’ licences 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 – so it was critical to get Graeme Young, PASO’s flight examiner Inspector in quickly in March to oversee the 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, 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 organise, 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. 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.”

    Rarotonga Rescue Fire Service’s Manager George Nicholls, PASO’s AGA Inspector Mike Haines with Cook Islands CAA Aviation Technical Inspector Makea Pauka. Photo: Mike Haines

    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 of audits to complete over eight days.

    “In 2020, we were due to do a five-year air operator recertification (Part 119 AOC and 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. So, 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).

    Plus, 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 were 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.

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

    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,” say PASO’s aerodromes and ground aids (AGA) Inspector, Mike Haines.

    Together they completed Rarotonga aerodromes audit using the PASO aerodrome checklist to logically sequence the inspection of the airfield, the maintenance programme, and reviewing and validating 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 CI CAA, the Ministry of Transport, and the Airport Authority.

    Rarotonga International Airport, Cook Islands. Photo: Shutterstock

    Flying with Confidence

    For Dennis the whole exercise was very positive, and it was a high note to finish on before handing over the Director 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 capitalise on this narrow travel window to get the task done.”

    “The other great thing is 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.

    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 being the safety critical industry that it is 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 in it, are still up-holding the highest of safety standards.”

    “The Cook Islands is 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, thank you,” concludes Donald.