Wellington Scoop

Impossible dreams

The news that Wellington Airport wants $200million of public money to pay for most of the cost of extending its runway seems to have relegated the proposal to the list of the city’s impossible dreams.

But impossibilities never deter our councillors. For ages a majority of them have deluded themselves into believing that a 290-metre-long concrete flyover can somehow be “mitigated” so that no one will see it alongside the Basin Reserve.

And at the end of May a majority voted to pay $1million to help the airport prepare a resource consent application for extending its runway. This was in spite of the fact they were warned that the airport wouldn’t want to pay for the project. Here’s the wording of the report that councillors were given:

The direct economic benefits to Wellington International Airport Ltd from a runway extension are unlikely to ever be sufficient to justify WIAL investing in this project on its own. The main economic benefits accrue to the Wellington City and Regional economy and public investment is required.

The DomPost re-confirmed this in Thursday’s report from the annual meeting of Infratil, which owns two thirds of the airport. (The city council owns the other third). Infratil’s chief executive Marko Bogoievski told his shareholders that the longer runway would not become a reality unless local ratepayers and taxpayers chipped in to the tune of $200 million, two thirds of the cost.

What’s the city getting in return for spending a million dollars to plan a runway extension that the airport isn’t willing to pay for? Again, here’s what councillors were told:

engineering designs; aviation design to ensure compliance with aviation standards; coastal processes; landscaping; traffic design; noise and recreation impacts; archaeology and cultural effects; alternatives; and consultation. WIAL state that proceeding with the approval process is a necessary first step to lift the proposed extension from a conceptual level to a definable project. This would provide certainty around the ability to deliver the project and enable work to be completed on the business case and funding of any extension.

But the “necessary first step” won’t bring any certainty that anyone is willing to pay the cost of extending the runway. And Infratil sounds cautious when estimating the modest number of potential travellers. Its annual report says: “Today well over a plane-load of people a day fly each way between Asia and Wellington, but they all travel via Auckland, Christchurch or Australia.”

Nevertheless, a longer runway is part of a strategy with which Wellington hopes to attract long-haul flights from an Asian airline. The city council has been spending $200,000 a year in pursuit of this aim, which is a key plank in the city’s economic blueprint (written in 2011). The blueprint states that the council intended to introduce long-haul flights between Wellington and Asia by 2013. When the new year arrived and the flights didn’t show up, the council was reluctant to discuss its failure. The reason has emerged at last, in the report backgrounding the resource consent:

The new generation aircraft that promised to be able to operate at a level that negated the lack of length at Wellington airport are not delivering these capabilities in real performance terms

Will a longer runway bring any guarantee of success for the council’s economic blueprint? The DomPost’s report contains a caution from Tim Brown, an Infratil executive, who says it’s important to keep track of emerging technologies because “you [could] build a new runway and find in five years’ time there’s an airplane that can land on the [original one] anyway.”

Over on the Strathmore Park blog, Ian Apperley states often-heard concerns about the business relationship between Infratil and the city council, and adds a caution about the value of extending the runway:

Wellington Airport is a gateway service that drives a lot of economic activity in Wellington, and getting it right is critical…We need to redress the balance in the relationship … before we go madly charging down building what might be the biggest white elephant in recent New Zealand history.

Read also: Consequences of the runway extension


  1. Stan Andis, 18. August 2013, 19:46

    WCC went blindly forward without consulting its ratepayers and voted to “donate” $1 million toward a Resource Consent application without doing any homework. “Excess funds” was the “out” for ignoring its own Community Engagement Policy. As usual, it seemed like a good economic idea without a return on investment for Wellington. “Lets get on with it” someone said, and voting took place 11-2 with the usual sheep mentality. This ratepayer will not accept one cent of expenditure toward this proposal until such time as a full and complete Business Case has been presented to the public for scrutiny, in a full and transparent and independent process. Councillors please note, you will not be provided with your delegated authority in this instance.

  2. Peter Kennedy, 18. August 2013, 21:27

    Stan, that is how I’ve put it in my policy. I’m all for the airport extension if it stacks up as a business case. No good chucking money at it just because it ‘feels good’.
    Remember, one Councillor who wanted a ‘diving pool’ at the Aquatic Centre. Apparently there was a bit of self-interest there. Whatever we do in Wellington has to be good for all Wellington, and stack up as a real goer.

  3. Hel, 18. August 2013, 21:38

    Sounds like the Council received sound guidance from staff and made an informed decision. The main benefit accrues to the city, region and country and not the airport. If the public want it they will need to help pay for it!

  4. Glenn Kingston, 18. August 2013, 23:52

    In my early engineering working life, projects started out with technology becoming feasible, then getting public and business acceptance to enter projects into forward plans etc; next came the suits requiring a business case. The business cases became more and more creative and fanciful, and rarely delivered their original outcomes. Now it seems we are moving to a new breed of suits who throw money into resource consent processes before even preparing the business case. Who are they accountable to? Seems not their constituents. The classic cart driven (drip fed) horse! Fanciful figures claiming diversion of 450,000 travellers who would otherwise fly via AKL & CHC hubs ignore the fact that few international destinations, with even fewer airlines, would ever operate direct from WLG.
    Lets get real & ask WIAL/WCC to first deliver the much vaunted Adelaide service (which does not require an extension) to achieve their last “business case” which was heavily promoted & funded from successive Annual & LT Plans.

  5. Stan Andis, 19. August 2013, 16:53

    Hel – one needs to be aware when leaving it to recommendations by Council Officers. In this case the “Officer’s Report” admitted to the lack of consultation. There is no discussion in the Draft Annual Plan or the Long Term Plan relating to the support of WIAL to ANY expenditure whatsoever. The Councillors’ decision was made off the seat of their pants when the 2013/2014 Draft Annual Plan had not been completed let alone signed-off. Is that a transparent and open process?

  6. Marie, 19. August 2013, 19:36

    It seems outrageous that such an exorbitant amount of ratepayer money could be put forward without a comprehensive and complete business case – a business case which offers compelling evidence that Wellington ratepayers will benefit. To throw money at a resource consent for a proposal which seems to be costly on the environment and ratepayers, marginal on safety – let alone expected returns on investment – is sheer folly. Wait for the new technology!

  7. Ross Clark, 21. August 2013, 4:07

    If there are problems in getting to Wellington because it is not a full international airport, then the need is to improve the connections – perhaps by getting AirNZ to run flights directly to Auckland’s international terminal and back. This would save some considerable time which would be otherwise spent negotiating Auckland Airport’s security and baggage handling.

    The other option is getting Emirates to add Wellington into its international network, via the codesharing with QF, and promoting *that* as the fast way to Europe.

  8. Stan Andis, 21. August 2013, 16:35

    Ross, it may be of interest that Air NZ are not intending to fly out of Wellington direct to Asia. They already offer flights to Asia, Europe and USA from Wgton and Ch’ch via Auckland. I can well recall travelling to Thailand about 4 years ago. We departed from Wellington to Sydney, and had a stopover in the transit lounge of 8 hours! Will never do that again.

  9. Ross Clark, 21. August 2013, 22:02

    Stan – to clarify, what I am thinking of is a dedicated service from Wellington’s international terminal to Auckland’s international terminal, thus avoiding a lot of the problems of both transiting through Auckland (outwards) and arriving in Auckland (inwards). On arrival in NZ passengers would transfer to the Wellington flight and then clear the border/customs in Wellington, not Auckland.

  10. KB, 22. August 2013, 9:42

    I really don’t understand how the cost of the runway extension is so high. It looks like the build cost includes 50% profit margin for whoever is building it.

  11. Rob Miller, 28. August 2013, 13:48

    Why isn’t Wellington just happy being the Capital like Canberra? After all Wellington has a population of 365,000 or thereabouts and Canberra has a population of 325,000. Leave it to the rest of the country to develop export industries etc. like Christchurch has been so successful at.
    I think Wellingtonians have got to realise what you have got rather than what you haven’t got. You’ve got a lot going for you now but not all us South Islanders want to have to move to the North Island for all the money in the world. Enjoy what you got Wellington and you’ve got a lot, just stay there OK and don’t move if you can help it.

  12. Neil Douglas, 18. September 2013, 13:28

    Good comment Rob. Let Auckland and Christchurch have the noisy Jumbos. How many long haul planes do you think Welly would get? One a day at best, 50% full of package tourists who get out of Welly on a coach as soon as they arrive.

    The financial repercussions would be that all air fares would go up so we’d paying $20 more a trip to travel on the exactly the same sized plane as now to go to Sydney etc.