Authorities are looking for the operator of a "sizeable" red drone that passed close to an Air New Zealand A320 plane with 166 passengers on board as it climbed out of Christchurch en route to Auckland.
Director of Civil Aviation Graeme Harris said the Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) passed close to the plane at an altitude of about 6000 feet near Kaiapoi about 5:45pm yesterday.
"Technically this report will be recorded as a near miss, and based on the information to hand at this time it raises significant safety concerns," Mr Harris said.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) launched a full investigation shortly after the pilot reported the sighting and Transport Minister Simon Bridges was briefed last night.
Mr Harris was urging those with knowledge of a drone being operated in Kaiapoi at the time to come forward.
"We are very concerned that an RPAS pilot appears to have allowed their aircraft to fly in such close proximity to a passenger aircraft.
"The RPAS should not have been anywhere near the jet. It simply shouldn't have been in that airspace," Mr Harris said.
Mr Bridges said unsafe RPAS flights were unlawful and would be dealt with accordingly.
"While this reporting is concerning, I am satisfied that it's being investigated fully, with urgency, and is being treated very seriously," Mr Bridges said.
A new civil aviation rule for RPAS came into effect on August 1. Under the rule, anyone who wants to fly an RPAS beyond what is allowed for traditional model aircraft needs to apply for certification from the CAA.
"We have to assume that this RPAS pilot was unaware of the rules regarding flying unmanned aircraft," Mr Harris said.
"While RPAS technology is advancing quickly and offers some very significant benefits to a range of industries, it can pose a threat to conventional aviation activities and this must be carefully managed," he said.
Air New Zealand released a statement saying it was disturbed by the emerging trend of the reckless use of drones that put the safety of customers and staff at risk.
Captain David Morgan said Air New Zealand would support any decisions to prevent the compromising of safety and the integrity of airline operations.
"Last night our customers and staff were put at risk as one of our aircraft departed Christchurch airport," he said.
"What our pilot believed to be a drone was being operated in and around the flight path but was fortunately spotted by our pilots who ensured the aircraft avoided it. This was reckless behaviour by the drone operator who has so far not had the courage to come forward and address their behaviour with authorities."
The NZ542 was carrying 166 customers and crew between Christchurch and Auckland.
Capt Morgan said the safety of Air New Zealand's customers and crew was non-negotiable.
"Drones are an emerging issue for airline operators and clearly incidents involving drones are a cause for concern. We welcome the prompt CAA response and investigation into the incident, support the authorities taking action against anyone who can be identified and encourage stricter industry regulation governing the operation of drones."
NZN / 3 News