OPINION Dave Armstrong: Dave Armstrong: Project Runway wild gamble without an airline


Hallelujah! After growing opposition from surfers, Moa Point greenies and airline pilots, the airport runway extension is taking off thanks to the latest report commissioned by, wait for it, the airport.

Did you know that for every dollar we invest in the runway extension we could get up to possibly maybe perhaps seven back? It’s a no-brainer! That’s what the expensive full-page newspaper advertisement asking for feedback, led by a Clark Kent lookalike who could be any of the many designers and coders who do PR for the airport, implies.

With a Phoenix player, a craft beer hipster and a film wanker in their ranks, these trendy superheroes could fly us into the next century, via the runway extension, supported only by a hefty ratepayer handout to pay for the million cubic tonnes of dirt. That’s because the government, private investors and Air New Zealand don’t want a cubic millimetre of it. Apparently there’s not much profit in the extended runway for the airport company – it only wants it for our own good.

When news broke of the latest report, apart from being amazed by the number of times the words ‘could’ and ‘may’ were used, I was impressed by the benefits listed. But the report was commissioned by the airport which inevitably leads one to mutter, ‘well they would say that, wouldn’t they?’

Sapere, the company that produced the report, has offices in Australia and New Zealand. One of their directors, Dr Graham Scott, was Secretary of the Treasury in the late 1980s when it was involved in telling Kiwis of the enormous benefits they would receive from privatisation. That didn’t pan out, though a few at the top who invested in privatised assets like airports with short runways did very well.

There is definitely some public support for the runway extension but obviously not enough, hence the expensive PR campaign. What the report doesn’t tell us is the names of the airlines from Asia or the US who will publically commit to flying to Wellington if we build the extension – because I suspect at this stage there are none.

There is apparently lots of interest but the airlines are waiting for the thing to be built before they will commit. Even if they do commit they’ll pull out if they don’t make a profit. Can you blame them? Call me old-fashioned but if up to $300 million of my rates are going to be blown on a runway I would like to be certain that it would be used.

But the philosophy seems to be “build it and they possibly, maybe, perhaps, potentially, feasibly could come”. Surely a longer airport runway would put us on the tourist map? Christchurch has a long runway and is much closer to major tourist destinations. It currently has one daily flight to Singapore. The Wellington airport company predicts four per day from Wellington by 2035.

Rotorua and Hamilton have recently become international airports but in a stroke of amazingly bad luck no flights from Houston, Dubai or Hanoi have jetted in.

Surely this extension will be a great public asset and the Government will contribute? “It remains mystifying why a private company whose parent made $385m last yr thinks it needs taxpayers 2 pay for this,” tweeted Steven Joyce.

Yet most of our local politicians seem to have an evangelical zeal for the airport extension. Perhaps runway supporters and mayoral candidates Justin Lester, Celia Wade-Brown and Nicola Young have seen the Truth, the Way, and the Extended Runway Lights that will lead us to the Promised (by the latest airport-commissioned report) Land? According to Lester, he would seek “as firm a commitment as possible”, from an airline to begin long-haul flights here before building an extension but that might not be a written contract.

If I was a marketing techno-geek of the type portrayed in the airport’s ad I would say that there is a “window of opportunity” opening for a mayoral candidate who thinks that giving up to $300 million of ratepayers’ money to a private company for a runway extension that is based on the hope that long-haul airlines might fly here is a massive gamble and highly irresponsible.

 – The Dominion Post