The Dominion Post: Airlines question need for Wellington Airport runway extension

The airline industry is criticising plans to extend Wellington Airport’s runway, saying there are better ways to spend $300 million.

In a submission that went to the Wellington City Council last night, the Board of Airline Representatives New Zealand (Barnz) raises serious concerns about the claimed economic benefits, and fears airlines will be left to pick up the bill.

The board represents 20 airlines that fly into and around New Zealand, including Air New Zealand.

Wellington Mayor Celia Wade-Brown says existing users will not face extra charges.

Extending the airport runway by 300 metres to the south to allow enough room for long-haul carriers to land has been touted as one of the council’s “eight big ideas” in its draft Long-Term Plan. The council has agreed in principle to fund up to $90m of the possible $300m bill.

The project has been touted as an economic must-have for the region, with the potential to inject up to $1.7 billion in benefits.

The extension would mean newer wide-bodied jets, such as the Boeing 787 Dreamliner and Airbus A350, could fly into Wellington, opening direct links to anywhere within 12 1/2 hours’ flying time.

The airport is expected to lodge resource consent applications in the next few months.

But Barnz says the methodology used to work out the supposed economic benefits is flawed. It commissioned a peer review which states that the economic impact assessment “overstates the benefits while overlooking costs”.

Many of the assumptions used are unsound, the report says. That includes the idea that people would wait 48 hours to catch a direct flight rather than adding a stopover in Auckland, and that tourists would want to land in Wellington, requiring a “figure of eight” to explore the country, rather than starting at one end and going down.
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“It is difficult to see why an extended Wellington Airport runway would be an attractive destination to long-haul carriers, given the infrastructure that already exists elsewhere in New Zealand.”

The board’s submission also states that a costs shortfall of about $50m a year will need to be made up, probably by passing it on to travellers, airlines or ratepayers.

Barnz executive director John Beckett said it was clear that a robust cost-benefit analysis had to be carried out.

“Wellington’s wanting to boost itself, and if it’s got $300m to do that, there could well be better ways to spend it than on the runway extension.”

Given the requirement for long-haul carriers to fill 80 per cent of their seats, it was unlikely one would be willing to come to Wellington, he said.

“We’re not aware of any airline expressing an interest in flying long-haul into Wellington . . . Our concern is that there’s a potentially huge cost either to the ratepayers or to the traveller.”

Wade-Brown, who sits on the airport board as a result of the council being a part-owner, said the runway extension “clearly doesn’t suit Air New Zealand’s short-term interests”.

“[Wellington International Airport Limited] and its other major shareholder have made it plain that existing users will not pay additional landing charges unless they use the extension. We’re certainly interested in receiving all submissions on the airport extension and other matters, and will draw our conclusions at the end of the consultation process.”

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