Civil Aviation Authority director's resignation 'long overdue' - staff

A group of current and former Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) staff have told Newshub the director Graeme Harris' resignation is "long overdue". 

The four current and former staff told Newshub last year they believed their complaints of bullying and sexual harassment had been "covered up" by CAA management. 

Their allegations, along with another employee who told Newshub about a "toxic culture", promoted an independent review of the CAA's culture. That review has been completed but is yet to be made public. Harris has seen a draft of the review findings. 

In an email to all staff, Harris said he was resigning with immediate effect. He said he had regrets but felt he was leaving the Authority in "good hands", that the Authority had gone from "strength to strength" and spoke of some of his recent achievements such as his implementation of an organisational change programme. 

In a statement sent exclusively to Newshub, the group of current and former CAA staff say "he doesn't leave the organisation in good shape", but rather "he leaves years of ignorance and destruction of his people".

They say it's clear the organisation is not doing well after a review of the culture was ordered, along with a QC's review of the Aviation Security Service. "Why resign immediately during a world crisis which has, without doubt, hit aviation hard?", they ask. 

Newshub has contacted the CAA about these comments, but it is yet to respond. 

When asked if Harris had resigned suddenly over the findings of the CAA culture review, Chairperson of the CAA Janice Fredric said Harris had signalled to the board late last year that he intended to retire this year.

The Board has appointed Shelley Turner, currently the deputy chief executive of organisational development and support, as acting Director.  

In an email to all staff from Turner, she said she wanted support to rebuild the organisation. "Please refrain from talking to industry about your personal views until we have a joined up organisational view." She urged staff to "contribute constructively".  

Aviation commentator Irene King told Newshub directors generally resign because of "loss of confidence either personally or professionally". 

King says Harris has been the subject of "intense scrutiny" over his leadership style. She's concerned the CAA is struggling at a time when key expertise is critical to its function as a regulator.

The organisation is now "bereft at its most senior levels of any commercially experienced technically experienced individuals," but notes that industry commitment to safe performance is unwavering.   

The decision of Harris to resign follows the swift departure of the former CAA Chairman, Nigel Gould, who was effectively sacked by Transport Minister Phil Twyford. Gould's resignation follows comments he made about the alleged complainants which Twyford said were "ill-judged".

The following is the letter Graeme Harris sent to staff regarding his resignation:

Good evening all,

A number of you that I've spoken to in the past 5-6 months will be aware of my intention to retire from the CAA sometime between the middle and end of this year. I've been prevaricating on exactly when to make the break for some time. It appears, however, that there is nothing quite like 'lockdown' in a global pandemic to focus your thinking.  

Having just achieved the milestone of eight years as CE and taking into account the context in which we are operating right now, I think now is the time to lock in a departure date. In doing this, I am mindful of a number of things:

  • the fact that we are about to embark on the final phase of the organisational change I initiated for the CAA last year;
  • the work currently underway to design the appropriate capacity, capability and cost structure for the Authority (the CAPCO review) post-COVID-19; and
  • the forthcoming release of the report of the Ministerial Review of the Authority.

While my initial thinking had been to stay on until after the implementation of the final stage of the CAA's organisational change I have concluded it would serve you better if you were led through the next few critical months by someone who is staying with the Authority rather than leaving it very soon after. In this respect, I note that in recent times I have appointed the Deputy Chief Executive Organisational Development and Support, Shelley Turner, to lead the final phase of the CAA design review, to Chair the Steering Group for the CAPCO review and to be part of the subcommittee of the Authority Leadership Team to lead the implementation of any recommendations made by the Ministerial Review. From my perspective, and the Board agrees, it makes sense for her to lead the organisation during the next few months until a successor is appointed. She will bring her considerable talent, energy and enthusiasm to the role and will not be encumbered by the events of the past.

I have, therefore, today submitted my resignation to the Board. While I have a notice period to serve which will take me past mid-year, I think the right thing to do is to provide a clear transition of leadership given the above context. As a consequence, Shelley will take over as Acting CE/Director of Civil Aviation immediately. During my notice period, I will provide her with advice and assistance, particularly on any regulatory/technical matters she considers necessary.  

While I feel an element of regret on leaving after eight years I have to say that I am absolutely confident that I am leaving you in good hands. In recent years I have seen the Aviation Security Service go from strength to strength under the leadership of Mark Wheeler and his management team. Equally, I have seen a very significant improvement in the safety and security regulatory performance of the CAA. The recent appointment of a new management team in the CAA has brought some real talent to the fore and bodes well for the future. Both parts of the organisation have done outstanding work in response to COVID-19 and you can be justifiably proud of your great work.   

Thank you for your commitment to the public interest in regulating civil aviation and delivering aviation security services. You often do not get enough recognition for your efforts but I certainly know how valuable they have been.

Good luck for the future.