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A longer runway – needed or not needed?

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The only organisations being cautious about the costly (and uncosted) idea of extending the runway at Wellington Airport are the airlines themselves.

In the DomPost’s “big tick” report this morning, the legal counsel for the Board of Airline Representatives says realistically:

The project’s economic benefits might not look quite so good against the costs. It remained to be seen how much of the $300m would come from ratepayers and how much would be placed on airlines through higher terminal charges, which could be passed on to passengers in higher fares.

But no one else has any doubts. Certainly not the two councils who would be deciding to use ratepayers’ money. Fran Wilde, speaking for the Regional Council, believes that a longer runway would solve economic issues:

Economic growth in the Wellington region still lags behind Auckland and in fact the rest of New Zealand. Wellington’s connectedness is a key issue.

And Deputy Mayor Justin Lester (whose council owns one third of the airport shares) repeats the city council’s long-held enthusiasm:

The city council believes the time is right for investment in a longer runway. It would be a catalyst project for the city and the region.

Their enthusiasm is echoed by the airport’s chief executive Steve Sanderson who says the project deserves funding from regional ratepayers because

international travel time would be slashed by up to a third for those within the airport’s catchment area which includes Nelson-Marlborough and Hawkes Bay. That saving both in time and cost is particularly important for the region’s businesses.

What was to have been an extension to the north is now being planned as an extension into Cook Strait, and Mr Sanderson says an engineering solution and final cost are still to be worked out. But this hasn’t stopped the DomPost from repeating the unproven $300m as the cost of the dream.

And apart from the cost (once it’s known) there’s an even bigger issue – the fact that the airport’s majority owner Infratil says that direct connections between Wellington and Asia will be possible without extending the runway. Infratil states this on its website, while also noting that passenger traffic with the existing runway has been increasing every year for ten years:

Since 2003 the Airport’s domestic passenger numbers have risen 3% per annum, and international passengers 5% per annum. This rate of growth is projected to continue meaning that about 1 million more passengers are expected by 2017. There are, however, reasons why the next decade could see stronger growth. On the one hand New Zealand’s aviation market is being gradually integrated with Australia. A larger, more vibrant market is likely to result in a more diverse service offering and generally a more dynamic and competitive air travel market, which will attract more travel into and from the region. A second factor is the launch of the Boeing 787 jet. This relatively small, light aircraft would be ideal on services between Wellington and Asia. It would use the Airport’s existing runway and facilities, and its size suits the demand needs of those routes.

(The emphasis is ours). City councillors don’t seem to be aware of this Infratil statement. In yesterday’s discussion of a ten-year strategy “to unlock Wellington’s economic potential,” the need for a longer runway is repeated, without question.

A runway up to 300 metres longer would allow planes to fly direct to and from Asia and raise the prospect of one-stop flights to and from other destinations. This would help to increase visitor numbers and strengthen education and business connections.

Our elected representatives need to go to the Infratil website and discover what can be possible with the existing runway. They also need to inform themselves about “the demand needs” of Asian routes, and when they find out how much an extension will cost they need to heed the airlines’ caution about costs versus benefits…., All this before deciding whether ratepayers should be asked to contribute to the cost of a longer runway.