The Court of Appeal makes the point strongly – cost is “not a predominant factor to be balanced against the requirement of promoting safety” at Wellington Airport, and cost should be of only limited relevance in determining what is feasible for safety if the runway is extended.
In its decision this week on an appeal about the size of a safety area at the end of the proposed southern extension of the runway, the Court says:
Our review leads us to the inescapable conclusion that a runway end safety area must extend to 240 metres in length unless it can be shown that it is not practicable. The Civil Aviation Authority can only approve a shorter RESA if it extends as far as possible between 90 and 240 metres, and must consider the use of engineered arresting systems.
…in our judgment the Director [of the Civil Aviation Authority] made material errors of law when deciding to accept Wellington International Airport Ltd’s request to approve … a 90 metre runway end safety area to its proposed southern extension of the runway.
The court quotes from a decision of the Civil Aviation Authority in 2005, which said
A runway end safety area should be 240 metres where possible because the statistics indicate that 240 metres will capture approximately 90% of the events compared to approximately 68% for 90 metres.
And the judgement states:
There was nothing in the material before the [CAA] Director to suggest that an extension to the RESA of an extra 150 metres (taking it to 240 metres)was not practicable. If the runway could be extended a further 200 or 350 metres, there was nothing to suggest that the RESA cannot be similarly extended.
The appeal was brought by the airline pilots’ association, representing 2,200 pilots and air-traffic controllers; its evidence included an affidavit on the subject of safety:
The affidavit stated that financial losses if just one [Boeing] B777 or [Airbus] A330 aircraft were to overrun the runway and the 90m RESA with substantial fatalities, [it] would more than outweigh the quoted construction cost ‘…without taking into account the human cost.’
Welcoming the court’s rejection of the 90km safety area, the association chairman said: “As commercial pilots and air traffic controllers, our members have much to gain from an increase in flights landing and leaving from Wellington Airport, but not at any cost – especially if that cost is to the safety of passengers, local people, and airport staff.”
The judgement is precise about the need for an adequate safety area at the end of the runway:
Its purpose is to reduce the risk of human and physical harm where an aeroplane undershoots or overruns the runway. The probability of such an event occurring at a given location at any particular time is very low. But the consequences may be catastrophic.
The judgement also gives an instruction to the CAA Director:
The correct legal test … requires the Director to assess whether a 240-metre RESA can feasibly be constructed. If satisfied that this is not practicable, the Director is empowered to approve a shorter RESA only if it extends to the greatest distance practicable between 90 and 240 metres and meets the purposes of the statutory regime — aviation safety and New Zealand’s obligations under international aviation agreements.
Will this ruling be a final obstacle to extending the runway? Or will the Environment Court hearings continue mid-year as scheduled? The airport’s chief executive says he is disappointed by the decision and will discuss “next steps” with the Civil Aviation Authority. “It is too early to say what impact this decision will have on the proposed runway extension.”
But in a Werewolf article analysing the ruling, Gordon Campbell writes:
In itself, this Court of Appeal decision may not be enough to derail the runway extension. Yet given that (a) the project funding (b) its economic viability and (c) the environmental impact of the extension are all looking like uphill battles…it could well be time to finally pull the plug.