Wellington Scoop

What to do about the airport?


by Benoit Pette
Wellington Airport is a major part of the city’s landscape. It is geographically central. It plays an important role in the economy. A lot of people and businesses rely on it to organise their lives, whether for an occasional trip or regular commute. However, air traffic comes with many unwanted by-products, and adversely impacts nearby communities.

The recent release of the airport’s 2040 masterplan raises important questions about how these issues will be dealt with.

Hopefully, tools exist, at a local level, to ensure the situation doesn’t worsen. The Wellington City Council must use them.

The Airport is an essential link with other cities in New Zealand and Australia (the “direct” flight to Singapore stops in Melbourne). 250 planes take off from its runway every day. This amounts to a few thousand tons of CO2 released daily in the atmosphere (when accounting for descent, take-off and climb). This makes the Airport responsible for 25 to 30% of Wellington greenhouse gas emissions.

At a time where climate change is on everyone’s mind, this poses a problem. We would need to plant 5,000 trees each day to compensate for the airline’s emissions, for as long as the Airport is operating. That’s a new Town belt every 3 months! Birds would love it, but it’s not happening.

Beyond climate change, the air traffic has a huge impact on local communities (roughly 50,000 people if you include all suburbs east of Roseneath); air pollution and noise pollution are serious health hazards. Jets landing and taking off are the most harmful, leaving a kerosene smell, breaking the soundscape, interrupting conversations, and for the closest residents, shaking the house; even out of sight, noise pollution intrudes on residents’ lives, especially with the low flying aircraft from the aero club: these recreational aircraft can turn in circles over the harbour for hours, buzzing continuously each day of every weekend, for the whole day.

Last week, the Airport released its expansion plan. Because the number of travellers is expected to double by 2040 (from 6 million passengers a year to 12 million), it is planning to enlarge its apron by 50% (at the minimum), as well as increase the number of aircraft movements. In 2040, the Airport expects 375 flights taking off, every day.

This plan, disclosed a week after the election to avoid a public debate, invites the public to provide feedback. It needs to be submitted to wlg2040@wellingtonairport.co.nz by the 17th of November, only three weeks after the vision was announced.

Three weeks, for a billion dollar project, to consult with local communities, before starting detailed planning. (When a local resident was complaining about the airport, an associate suggested residents had the choice to not live in the area… as if the Eastern suburbs belong only to the Airport.)

The Airport, eager to demonstrate its environmental conscientiousness, tried to pre-empt any idea the additional traffic would increase air pollution by stating “next generation aircraft are 20% to 30% more efficient …”. However, even if every new flight is operated on the so called “next generation” aircraft (whatever that means), the emissions will still go up (50% more flights being 30% more efficient means more air pollution). Moreover, even if they are also more noise efficient (for example being quieter per passenger), more flights will mean more noise in the absolute for local residents.

So how well does greenhouse gas emission increase stack up in the face of climate emergency? Well, it does not. Accepting it as inevitable is accepting that nothing can be done to mitigate climate change. It repeats a business model that has caused climate change, while taking it to the next level (ironically, and a side note, the Airport has a budget line in its plan to address the effects of climate change that it has contributed to in the first place!). It perpetuates a business model for which we know the consequences are dire.

What can be done? First, a lid must be placed on greenhouse gas emissions from air traffic going through the airport. The number of flights could increase only on condition they do so 100% sustainably.

This would not open the book for more flights for a while as the technology to fly sustainably is not ready yet. But it would change 30 of 40 years of inaction; it would put the environment, i.e. the people, first, before profit.

Limiting flights would have an interesting consequence: demand would eventually exceed the offer, which would increase the price of flying to and from Wellington. This is where it becomes interesting: everyone agrees the price of flying does not accurately represent the true costs (environmental costs are not included in pricing) and everyone agrees there should be carbon tax on flying (even Andy Foster).

The consequence of putting a lid on emissions would achieve exactly that: increase the cost of flying by blocking additional emissions from air traffic. This should satisfy even Airport shareholders, as dividends would increase. The lid could be calculated based on average aircraft emissions during landing, take off and climb, or simply by number of kerosene-powered flights allowed per day.

The second measure that needs to be implemented is to limit Airport expansion to mitigate the impact on local residents. Looking at the proposed plan, which sees green space (the golf club) concreted for more planes, one can ask: where is the limit to the expansion? Should we stop when Strathmore and Miramar have all been bought out and covered in tarmac? And to the West, should we bring Kilbirnie down, because the Wellington Chamber of Commerce has decided it is vital for our economy like it did for the runway extension?

Surely everyone has in mind a limit to the Airport’s expansion – and neighbouring communities should have a strong input in setting it. The nuisances have probably reached the maximum the Eastern suburbs are prepared to take.

If these two measures were implemented, what role could the WCC play? Well, it could do a lot. By refusing to step in, the WCC concedes it doesn’t have the ability to protect its communities. But this is inaccurate. For example, the district plan is due to be reviewed soon. This would be a great opportunity to establish, once and for all, what Wellington, as a community of people living in this lovely corner of New Zealand, is prepared to accept in terms of the Airport’s footprint.

Probably to the Airport shareholders’ great dislike, the community would say: “The Airport shall not grow any bigger.”

The district plan could also be the place to set a cap to its emissions: “The Airport should not allow airlines to emit more than so many thousand tons of CO2 per day”. And if the district plan comes too late, what about by-laws? What better use case then to use by-laws to structure how the Airport can operate within our community?

The WCC might say it’s not able to influence these matters. But what about Paris, Madrid, London, etc where regulation has had dramatic effects on reducing greenhouse gas emissions? Wellington should follow their example by tackling its biggest polluter, the Airport. Also, climate change is an issue for some, and not for others: but everyone, at every level, from individuals to governments, from businesses to NGOs, must take part and do everything they can to mitigate the effects of climate change.

Wellington Airport has given the community 3 minuscule weeks to provide feedback on its vision of expansion. It is vital that the WCC steps up to counter this plan. It is its duty to represent its communities. Let’s hope it will be up to the task.

Benoit Pette has been living in Miramar for 13 years. He has a strong interest in clean transport, renewable energy and sustainability.

Wellington Airport named NZ’s “airport of the year”
New Airbus starts regular flights to Wellington
Eyeofthefish: Expanding in all directions


  1. TrevorH, 1. November 2019, 9:22

    The most rational response for the longer term is to move the airport to the Horowhenua where it would be serviced by the new expressways and a dedicated rail spur, and be far more accessible to international passengers and exporters in the wider region, from New Plymouth to Napier. The runway could be made long enough to take aircraft from Asia and North America. The Rongotai airfield would be retained for commuter, medical, aero club and RNZAF aircraft. Relocation would provide a tremendous economic boost to the region and relieve Wellington’s increasingly serious congestion. Perhaps Shane Jones can be prevailed upon to provide seed-funding for the shift from his Growth fund?

  2. David Mackenzie, 1. November 2019, 9:38

    Great essay, Benoît! When there is a declared climate emergency, there are good grounds for the public to expect the council to take strong measures to protect us, even at the cost of some persons’ profits. They suffer a little discomfort in the opportunity cost to ensure the actual survival of many of us.

  3. Jeanuau P, 1. November 2019, 11:02

    Why do they need to do anything to the airport?
    We don’t.

  4. Brendan, 1. November 2019, 14:54

    Exactly – the airport’s fine as it is. Growth for growth sake is the planner’s obsession and Wellington has far too many planners.

  5. Dave B, 1. November 2019, 16:45

    I don’t think it’s planners, Brendan. They just do what they are asked to do.
    It’s CEOs and Boards and business-magnates who push for this sort of thing. And politicians sometimes.

  6. KB, 1. November 2019, 17:52

    A longer runway enabling more direct international flights will actually save on greenhouse emissions, as currently passengers coming to Wellington from long haul flights have to take an additional domestic/trans-Tasman flight, adding greatly to emissions. Thinking only of Wellington emissions is incorrect – you have to consider the total emissions for the whole trip.

    In addition, looking longer term, aircraft designs are indeed becoming much more green. First the regional aircraft will be electric, then the core domestic jet fleet will be switching to fully electric, some of which will be VTOL that can land in other places than the airport. Then trans Tasman electric, followed by a zero carbon long haul option, likely a hydrogen/electric hybrid solution for the longer flights.

  7. Northland, 1. November 2019, 18:08

    I don’t disagree with your sentiments Benoit but what are you going to do about China and USA which produce a gazillion times more CO2 that Wellington and / or its airport. Lead by example? Well then if we really want to get to the crux of it, there should be a one child policy and we should be actively dismantling the tourism and farming industries.

  8. Henry Filth, 1. November 2019, 18:09

    So if Wellington Airport were to move, where would it go? Who would pay for the move and where would they get the money? How would people get to and from the new airport, who would pay for the transport and infrastructure links, and where would they get the money?
    Can Wellington actually afford to move Wellington Airport? Can New Zealand afford it?

  9. Dave B, 1. November 2019, 18:48

    China and the USA producing “a gazillion times more CO2 than Wellington” doesn’t get us off the hook.
    New Zealand has only 0.06% of the world’s population, but manages to produce 0.2% of the world’s emissions. Per-head of population we are up there with the worst, and need to find ways of cutting our emissions-per-person at least to what China achieves!

  10. Hel, 1. November 2019, 19:18

    Agree KB, but that is a very unpopular perspective! Discussions around moving the airport are frankly fanciful, it would do nothing to address emissions and relative to a modest cost to extend and maintain the current airport someone would have to front the massive cost to relocate. The airport is simply responding to demand; pretending that restricting the growth of the airport will make a blind bit of difference to demand for air travel and somehow reduce emissions is misguided.

  11. Northland, 1. November 2019, 22:40

    Dave B whatever changes are or are not made regarding the airport are a drop in the ocean globally speaking. They are even a drop in the ocean within New Zealand, with agriculture being a far greater cause of greenhouse gas emissions

  12. luke, 2. November 2019, 11:01

    If you want to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, take public transport instead of driving all the time.

  13. Benoit Pette, 2. November 2019, 13:40

    @KB: good on you for suggesting green planes are coming. You won’t mind, then, that we wait for them BEFORE we expand the airport and make it legally binding for the airport not to accept any more flights but these. Which is the point of this article: don’t compromise on the environment (as we know the price to pay for next generation will be too high) for growth. So it’s all about timing, really.

    @luke: how about we do both? Use PT, AT, and EVs to go to an airport limited in its growth until air traffic is 100% clean. When you think about it, we don’t have much choice.

    @Northland: the problem I have with suggesting we are too little to do something is that it is basically saying it is ok for a Kiwi to litter (in my lungs) but not for a Chinese. I think both should be equally forced into transitioning to clean economies, since we’ve been waiting for way too long. Growth is business as usual, which is status quo, which we can’t afford any longer. All of us have to take part, if only to lead by example. Yes. I can’t do much about the Chinese, but I can suggest we do something in our own backyard. We need another 1893 (women’s vote) moment and 1984 (nuclear free) moment to avoid the brickwall we are running towards.

  14. Henry Filth, 3. November 2019, 18:05

    Whatever New Zealand does or doesn’t do about carbon and other emissions won’t make a blind bit of difference at a global level. But that’s no reason to do nothing. The moral high ground is not a bad place on which to stand.

    But what is being done to cope with the effects? Standing on the moral high ground is all very well, but you do need to deal with those inexorably rising waters.

  15. glenn, 4. November 2019, 6:22

    Surely if you’re so against airports/pollution, you would never have moved there in the first place. Pretty sure it’s been there longer than 13 years

  16. Benoit Pette, 4. November 2019, 13:23

    @Glenn: To quote someone else, “participating in the world as it is does not disqualify you from trying to improve it”. My carbon footprint is doing well, thank you. I am interested in trying to improve the situation, too bad if you’re not. Limiting emissions is an improvement. Limiting pollution related health issues is an improvement. Limiting noise for locals is an improvement.

  17. Northland, 4. November 2019, 20:48

    @Benoit. I’m not saying we are too little to do anything. If we choose to lead by example, we should mean it and make meaningful changes. The biggest bang for buck. My suggestions are reform of intensive dairying and / or try to limit population growth. Both could deliver great results for New Zealand’s emissions profile. Having said all that, we are still all going to be fried without US, China, India etc getting on board also.

  18. glenn, 6. November 2019, 15:29

    @Benoit Pette…actually i’m all for improving the world. I think there is lots that can be improved but I fail to see how shooting ourselves in the foot, and becoming the world’s social experiment, is going to achieve much. I would welcome a greater Wellington community debate on this issue, I think i know what the outcome would be.

  19. Catlin Makery, 6. November 2019, 16:03

    You want to improve the world? Then start and finish with yourself. Becoming obsessed with the climate or carbon does nothing to improve the world. Making children afraid, alarmed and anxious is a negative contribution to the world.

  20. Benoit Pette, 6. November 2019, 19:11

    @glenn: Interesting you suggest a debate. Climate change is beyond the point of debate, and I’ll assume you agree with that, and the “debate” is on putting a lid on airport emissions. I did a quick survey a couple of months ago, which ran over a week. I added the third at the last minute. I am glad I did. I don’t claim it to be scientific or statistically accurate, but it can give an indication of where the debate would go if it was organised.

    Please note, too, the intent of this article was also to highlight the impact of the expansion plan on local communities. I care for the people who live close to the airport and I’m not happy they should be exposed to more noise and more emissions. I also care for our children, and what we’ll have to tell them when things have gone pear shaped: this matters more to me than short-time, short-sighted expansion plans. I deny the fact that a lid on emissions means shooting ourselves in the foot, as transitioning to a sustainable way of living is an economic opportunity. Countless books have been written on this topic. Let’s embrace that change, good for the economy, good for us, and good for the future. There are other ways to grow than grow the airport.

    @Catlyn: I didn’t know children were amongst Scoop readership, but if they are, it’s a good thing.

  21. TrevorH, 7. November 2019, 8:22

    @Benoit Pette: no science is “beyond debate”. There is no doctrine of infallibility when it comes to the scientific method.

  22. Diane Calvert, 7. November 2019, 9:01

    Key things required: master plan for Miramar Peninsula, a revised WCC Economic Dev strategy & govt strategy on air travel. In meantime, WLG Airport needs to support a frequent, cost effective & comfortable Airport Flyer. [via twitter]

  23. Ross Clark, 12. November 2019, 5:16

    @Diane Calvert
    Agree completely about the need to develop the Airport Flyer. It should be able to manage a ten-minute frequency all day into the city, and every twenty minutes out to the Hutt.

  24. Russel C., 12. November 2019, 11:45

    Why should we be subsidising the Airport Flyer so more people can get to the airport ‘el cheapo’ to board/alight carbon emitting planes from/to our city that has announced a “Climate Change Emergency”?

  25. Jeff Weir, 15. November 2019, 21:46

    Great essay. The “Proposed 2040 Masterplan for feedback” ain’t much of a masterplan. My feedback will be “Great, you’ve outlined the pros. But where’s ANY discussion of the cons?”. Search the document for ‘Traffic’ and you’ll get two waffly hits. Search for “Emissions” and you’ll find a bunch of ambitious targets directly at odds with the aim of the masterplan. There’s nothing in there about the impacts of actually building this new infrastructure either – lots of trucks on the roads, hurtling past the many schools here? Who knows?

    What analysis (if any) has been done on the impacts of this proposed extension on road traffic? Particularly given growth from other proposed developments and likely growth. We’ve already got one hell of a bottleneck over here. To say this ain’t gonna help things is an understatement. I’m sure the construction alone will have massive impacts on that front.

    What modelling (if any) has been done around possible changes in air travel demand in response to growing discomfort with carbon impacts by passengers? Have they just looked at past growth and rolled that into the future? Are there projections under a range of different scenarios?

    What ROI is the airport expecting from all this? That should be in the master plan. Because that ROI has to be big enough to balance the gains of some ratepayers against others who will bear very real costs of this redevelopment.

    How the hell do you even submit feedback on this document? Search the document for that word. Guess what you’ll find.

  26. Benoit Pette, 17. November 2019, 21:12

    The Wellington City Council, I am sorry to report, has not made the shadow of an official announcement on how it wants to approach the airport expansion plan. What is the Council’s position on that plan? Is it concerned about increased greenhouse gas emissions? Is it worried about the loss of green spaces? The ever increasing nuisance to the ever-closer residents? Does it intend to use its share in the Airport (a third) to influence, change, or oppose this plan? We don’t know since the Council has said nothing. Only five Councillors have expressed their views on this topic.