NEWS: Pilots challenge safety zones for Wellington Airport’s proposed runway extension

The cost of Wellington Airport’s $300 million runway extension will double if the larger safety zones that pilots want are included in the design, a judge has been told.

At the High Court in Wellington on Monday, the New Zealand Air Line Pilots’ Association – the union that represents pilots – argued the proposed extension should include a 240 metre runway end safety area (RESA) at both ends.

Wellington Airport’s existing 90 metre safety zones have been approved by the Civil Aviation Authority.

A lawyer for the authority told the court yesterday that reclaiming enough land to make them 240m would add another $300m on to the cost of the proposed extension.

But pilots’ association lawyer Hugh RennieQC said that should be done “if practicable” to ensure Wellington Airport complied with the law.

An alternative would be to have a shorter safety buffer with an “arresting surface” at each end where concrete slabs collapse under the weight of aircraft and slow them quicker than a smooth surface.

Wellington Airport is expected to apply for resource consent in December to extend its runway south by 300 metres at a cost of about $300m. Up to $150m of that is expected to be shouldered by Wellington city and regional ratepayers.

Pilots support extending the runway provided the safety rules are followed. But their union has asked the High Court to review the Director of Civil Aviation’s opinion that Wellington’s 90-metre safety areas are acceptable.

In court yesterday, Rennie told Justice Karen Clark that cost should not be the concern of Civil Aviation director Graeme Harris who has to approve the plan.

Harris has said that, on the information provided so far, he is prepared to allow a 90-metre safety area for Wellington Airport, his lawyer Francis Cooke QC said.

He agrees the definition of “practicable” could be clarified, but otherwise stands by his view.

Cooke told the court that reclaiming enough land to put a 240m safety area at both ends would add another $300m to the cost of extending the runway.

Cost and engineering considerations were part of the discussion about what was “practicable” for Wellington Airport, given the city’s challenging terrain and the roads at either end of the existing runway.

If the pilots’ view that a 240m safety area was needed in Wellington, then the airport had been in default since October 2011, he said.

Cooke also pointed out that plans for the runway extension were still at a “comparatively preliminary” stage and various possible lengths were included in the airport company’s proposals.

Wellington Airport has previously said it wanted to extend the runway so long-haul direct flights to Asia would be viable.

Cooke said the existing 90m runway safety area at the northern end was being used by planes for taxiing, and installing collapsing concrete would mean this could no longer happen.

The hearing will continue on Tuesday with Wellington International Airport Limited expected to make submissions to Justice Clark.

It is expected to say the Civil Aviation Authority has made his decision about the safety area, and it should not be changed.

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