Prime Minister John Key says he doesn’t believe Wellington is ready to be an international airport hub.
Key is worried that without the commitment of international carriers to base themselves in the capital, Wellington ratepayers would be left with a white elephant.
“We have seen plenty of examples around the country where airports have extended their runways to be international runways. Invercargill being the classic point and, to a certain degree, Hamilton, and there just haven’t been airlines willing to relocate there, so it’s been very expensive for ratepayers,” Key said.
Key’s comments come after the airline industry criticised plans to extend the Wellington Airport runway, saying there are better ways to spend $300 million.
The Board of Airline Representatives New Zealand (Barnz) said the methodology used to work out the supposed economic benefits was flawed.
Barnz executive director John Beckett said, in a submission that went to the Wellington City Council on Tuesday, “it was difficult to see why an extended Wellington Airport runway would be an attractive destination to long-haul carriers, given the infrastructure that already existed elsewhere in New Zealand”.
“I’m not surprised by comments being made by the airline association.”
The economic drivers for airlines were typically served by Auckland and Christchurch, he said.
“If you take someone like Air New Zealand as the biggest carrier out of New Zealand, the probability of them commercially wanting to fly a lot more flights out of Wellington is limited because they can already fly people to Auckland and Christchurch at reduced costs.”
The Government had not ruled out being part of any future expansions but the numbers had to add up and the mayor of Wellington had to woo the airlines, Key said.
“The mayor of Wellington speaks to me about it regularly. What we have said is we are quite happy to look at the analysis of that, but what I have always and consistently said to the mayor of Wellington is that she does need to go away and talk to the airlines.”
If airlines were not prepared to base themselves in Wellington, ratepayers could bear the cost, he said.
Wellington deputy mayor Justin Lester said the airport company, part owned by the Wellington City Council, was already in discussions with airlines.
Getting airlines on board with flying in and out of the capital was a key requirement for the airport extension to go ahead, he said.
“We’re talking to a number of airlines that are members of Barnz and they are saying to us they’re interested in looking at this in the future.”
Lester said it was easy to pick on Hamilton and Invercargill, but Wellington’s position was a lot different.
Hamilton is only an hour’s drive from Auckland while Invercargill’s bid was scuttled by the expansion of Queenstown Airport that transformed it from a sleepy New Zealand resort town to an international destination, he said.
“Local government investment in Queenstown turned it into an international destination and Wellington is an international destination,” Lester said.
“We are the capital city. We are confident in Wellington’s future. We are ambitious for Wellington and we believe we need international connectivity to become an international destination.”