Wellington Scoop

Runway challenged by pilot, economist

A pilot and an economist have this week joined the critics who are challenging plans for public funding to extend the runway at Wellington Airport.

Wellingtonian Paul Spence gave reasons why adding 300 metres will not make the Wellington runway safe for wide-body aircraft. He is a technology sector company director who has a commercial pilot licence and is an ardent supporter of regional economic development. He writes on GeniusNet:

“Long haul” flights are not coming to Wellington any time soon and here’s why. Firstly, medium haul, mid sized airliners are being phased out across the Asia-Pacific region as we speak. My understanding is that the last Qantas 767 has already gone and Air NZ has a small number remaining with limited lifespans. Asian airlines no longer operate these types. Air Asia and Jetstar withdrew A330s from Christchurch and Auckland, because they could not make a profit. In any event, an A330 would not be able to operate fully laden, even from an extended runway. Truly “long haul” aircraft such as A380, A340 and B777 are unlikely to be operated because of weight and size limitations.

The 787 Dreamliner is often touted as the saviour of long thin air routes. Again, it will not be possible to economically operate this aircraft out of WLG, even with a longer runway. Extending the runway will not remove the nearby hills. Aircraft take-off restrictions are governed by the climb performance under instrument flight conditions with a failed engine at the takeoff point. Long haul operations (10-16 hours) require huge fuel loads and substantial take-off weights. Take-off performance is a function of aircraft weight, engine power and ambient conditions, not runway length. Aircraft will be payload limited even with the runway extension in place.

Paul Spence adds:

There are many other investments that Wellington can make as a city and a region in order to promote economic development.

There’s also a strongly critical analysis of the business case prepared for the airport by a consulting firm named Sapere. The analysis comes from Wellington economist Keith Johnson, who writes:

…we are dealing with a commercial situation – … this means that ways should be found to recover the required revenue from the user businesses which benefit [tourism operators, retailers, hospitality service providers, businesses with overseas operations etc.]. I would be happy with that. The fact that this is not being proposed proves beyond all shadow of a doubt in my mind that the project is somewhere between a Lemon Lame Duck and a White Elephant with Knobs On.

There’s more. In the NZ Herald today, Bernard Hickey sounds a different caution:

Wellington’s ratepayers should chat to politicians in Invercargill, Rotorua, Hamilton and Canberra, who spent millions on the promise of direct international flights, to see them dry up and go away or never arrive. The fallout if the airlines don’t come would be significant.

And then there was Dave Armstrong in the DomPost yesterday, giving many reasons for being suspicious of the airport’s loudly-trumpeted claims.

If they build it, what if nobody comes?


  1. Southcoaster, 1. December 2015, 20:02

    And look! Not one of them a so-called ‘Nimby’!

  2. Build it now!, 1. December 2015, 20:38

    I wonder if Paul Spence has read the aircraft performance report?. Obviously not, otherwise he would realise that there are plenty of large aircraft like the A350 A330 (neo) smaller b777-200er and higher thrust 787s that will be excellent from the extended runway. And they don’t need too take off with a full load for sectors of 12-13 hours. Also being a pilot I presume he would be aware of rnp which allows aircraft to avoid newlands ridge in an engine out situation.

    The fact that he’s talking about the a340 shows how out of touch he is. No one is making them and few are flying them anymore. And btw Jetstar a330 never flew to chch and the earthquakes may have had an impact on the Air Asia services. And no the a380s aren’t the long haul aircraft of choice. Have a look at the boeing or air bus websites where there is plenty of info to show the demand and orders are for the smaller long haul aircraft.

  3. Andrew, 1. December 2015, 21:52

    I find Paul Spence’s comments most interesting. Does the CAA certify that different aircraft meet the restrictions he mentions? Or will flights be limited to when the wind is blowing from the south?

  4. CC, 2. December 2015, 6:50

    Nice work Build it now! Clearly you took what you wanted from Paul Spence’s comments and didn’t try too hard to read what had been written. The airport issue is surrounded with blinkered and biased commentary, reports by ‘bought’ experts who have no skin in the game apart from taking exorbitant fees to assemble a few prognostications and a strong hosing of misinformation which is fed via the media. Quite simply, ratepayers need to know that WIAL will buy its own runway, meet the costs of any inconvenience and infrastructure damage it causes during construction and will sink or swim on its own business acumen. One could not be too optimistic though. The majority owner (Infratil) has proved that it cannot operate airports in a competitive environment and the other owner (WCC) have repeatedly proven to be inept when it comes to making sound business decisions.

  5. Ian Apperley, 2. December 2015, 7:07

    Build it now: He doesn’t need to, they are of a similar operating perspective. I’ve spent time with a couple of pilots (who have flown them) and a flight engineer. The facts are these. These long-haul planes, regardless of type, will not be able to take off with a full-load from the airport with the extension. Particularly if it is a northerly. As for the 12-13 hour sectors: extra fuel must be carried because of weather, prevailing winds, emergencies along route, and emergencies at the other end. So it isn’t as simple as just loading up with 13 hours fuel.

    The Dreamliner is interesting. It needs more runway than an A380. The question that hasn’t been answered is: given the restrictions on load and flight types, even with a 300m extension, is it economically viable to do long-haul for an airline that bases its calculations on full, or near-full planes?

    And how economic? We know the cost of establishing a long-haul route in year one is well in excess of $500million and each year after about $160 million in operating costs. That’s without factoring ground improvements and Wellington’s notorious weather.

  6. syrahnose, 2. December 2015, 9:10

    On surface, Build it now’s comments appear to trump Paul Spence’s ‘facts’. I’ve been waiting for some real factual information on aircraft to crawl out of this site (which consistently has its own very strong biases). We shouldn’t forget that the history of progress consistently delivers more efficiency and capabilities with machines over time. Today’s aircraft aren’t tomorrow’s.

    Hickley’s ‘Invercargill, Rotorua, Hamilton and Canberra.” GMAFB, these are tiny, hick, one trick pony towns, few would want to fly direct.

    I found Keith Thompson’s analysis more compelling. WCC owning 1/3 of airport ought to be able to cough up 1/3 investment, maybe toss in future profits to sweeten deal. Let Infratil pay the rest. But there are other considerations. Now is a unique time to borrow at low interest for big infrastructure projects that create near term jobs in building sector. Shifting population and development focus away from Auckland ought to be a consideration of any govt.

  7. syrahnose, 2. December 2015, 9:14

    BTW, I’d love to see Keith Thompson do a similar analysis of the Petone bike path or the Victoria Street bike lanes feeding the millions of bikers heading up Brooklyn hill. Wellington.Scoop seems to turn a blind eye to balanced journalistic analysis.

  8. Build it now!, 2. December 2015, 10:16

    Well it has been answered if you were to read the report (including consideration of headwinds enroute, impact of obstacles, alternate fuel, aircraft weights increasing over time).

    I hope you would agree that airlines make most of their money from passengers on a per kg basis. If you look at many of the mainstream worldwide airlines, less than 5% of their revenues come from cargo and many of the world’s low cost carriers don’t carry any at all. I agree that the plane would be payload restricted outbound to many destinations and that’s the price to pay for not extending a further 200-300m, but according to the report it would be able to carry a full passenger load and some freight to most markets, and a full passenger and full freight load on landing. It also says there is conservatism in these numbers.

    There are plenty of examples where airlines fly sectors where a full payload isn’t possible; Wellington’s current Tasman services are a great example where the aircraft can’t take off with a full payload and yet airlines fly almost 70 return flights a week to Australia. Even some of Auckland’s services are payload restricted not due to the length of the runway but rather than capability of the aircraft used.

    And no he doesn’t need to read the report, but the airport has released these reports to the public and I get a sense from many of the nay-sayers on this website that they would rather stick their fingers in their ears and say nah nah nah i’m not listening, rather than actually engaging. Are you going to read the report, or continue to rely on your pilot buddies?

  9. Andrew, 2. December 2015, 10:27

    Syrahnose, please don’t forget the Petone bike path is secondary to armouring the seawall along the rail link/motorway between Wellington and Petone. Of course, if ignoring this fact makes makes things balance better in your eyes, then carry on.

    Another piece of info that may throw your balance off; the Victoria Street bike lane was a last minute addition to the development.

  10. Ian Apperley, 2. December 2015, 12:19

    “Well it has been answered if you were to read the report (including consideration of headwinds enroute, impact of obstacles, alternate fuel, aircraft weights increasing over time).”

    Perhaps you could point us all to that section.

  11. Build it now!, 2. December 2015, 15:26

    I saw it on the connect wellington website under reports and benefits. I think it was report number 8.

  12. Esjay, 2. December 2015, 17:58

    No doubt “Build it now” you have more “inside” information than those who are experienced airline operators. Can you explain why only approx 300 metres is the considered maximum runway extension to service genuine long haul flights? When compared to other international airport runway lengths, why is WIAL proposing a construction merely to suit specific aircraft ,as opposed to all come, all served?

  13. Build it now!, 2. December 2015, 20:44

    Esjay. I suggest you read the report as I did. I presume they are suggesting a 300m extension because a 1000m extension for all possible aircraft would be too expensive?. It’s a balancing act between having an extension which is just long enough for there to be a suitable choice of airlines aircraft and destinations but not making the project unaffordable. When the extension costs $1m a metre you would have to justify every metre.

    Most other airports in the world can extend as long as they like as they don’t have the constraints and associated high costs of extension Wellington has. And they end up extending much further than is required. For example chc and akl with the services they have could have got away with a far shorter runway length but chose to extend more than needed as it was “cheap” and they want to allow services with the largest aircraft to places like India and New York.

  14. CC, 2. December 2015, 21:28

    Clearly, ‘Build it now!’ is screwing up his/her arguments with a serious case of logic by-pass. Why have an expensive half-@rsed extension of marginal value when Auckland and Christchurch have plenty of capacity for fully loaded international services that can service more distant destinations while feeding off larger population bases. It seems probable that only a small proportion of the Wellington regional population travel internationally with such frequency that transiting an Australasian hub is more than a mild inconvenience. Therefore, why should Wellingtonian ratepayers cough up more in rates and, no doubt, significantly increased airport fees for domestic travel to subsidise the one-percenter frequent fliers or to enhance the returns on captal for Infratil investors.

  15. Esjay, 3. December 2015, 8:59

    Agreed CC. Perhaps “Build it now” you can have a greater say when the High Court decision is released next year. In the meantime the cost of the extension cannot be accepted as anything but pie in the sky. So far it’s ratepayer monies that are being committed. Until such time as WIAL throws good money after bad into the ring, then and only then it can be listened to.

  16. Build it now!, 3. December 2015, 9:29

    I will leave you with this. Air NZ are dead against the extension (for competition reasons). If there was any sniff that the extension was not going to be long enough for viable payloads to the sort of destinations the city would be interested in, then surely they would be saying that? That would be a pretty sure way to bring the project to a halt. They are not saying that…

  17. Andrew, 3. December 2015, 11:50

    I’m feeling pessimistic today. WIAL have to extend the runway for safety reasons. Spin it to the public as expansion for more destinations. In comes the WCC with $. Work goes ahead. No new carriers and no new destinations. Well done WIAL.

  18. CC, 3. December 2015, 13:48

    Where can one find any evidence that Air NZ is opposed to the extension ‘for competition reasons’ ? It has been suggested elsewhere that the stumbling block could be the cost of opening a new international hub without the certainty of commercially viable returns.

  19. Esjay, 3. December 2015, 14:42

    Exactly CC. Air NZ to my recollection have never made any such statement. Airline companies operate in a highly competitive market which means that service and the cost of an air fare are the prime considerations. As for me, my overseas travel is based on those factors and not loyalty.