The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has to revisit a decision over whether a longer runway safety area is needed if Wellington Airport extends its runway, a court has ruled.
In a decision released on Tuesday the Court of Appeal has agreed with the NZ Airlines Pilots’ Association (NZALPA) that the CAA must consider if longer runway safety areas (RESA) can feasibly be constructed, and also consider the use of arresting systems if appropriate.
The Court of Appeal found that in ruling that Wellington’s existing 90 metre safety area as compliant and appropriate for Wellington Airport’s proposed extension, the director of the CAA “made material errors in law”.
Under international aviation rules, regulators must ensure that airports operate with RESAs of at least 90m, and if “practicable” of at least 240m.
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In 2012 Wellington Airport requested clarification from the director of the CAA about the length of required RESA if the runway was extended.
Two years later the director of the CAA informed both the airport and NZALPA that it would not be practicable to require the airport to provide a RESA exceeding 90m, given the low risk of a crash and high cost of a larger safety area.
When the matter came before the the High Court, Justice Karen Clark ruled that what was “practicable” was a balancing exercise between safety considerations and the cost and difficulty involved.
However the Court of Appeal decision differed from Justice Clark, saying that while cost had some “limited relevance” in considering what was practicable, the real test was what was able to be constructed.
“[C]ost is not a predominant factor to be balanced against the requirement of promoting safety; given its removal from the amended primary legislation, “reasonable cost” is now a factor of subordinate importance,” the Court of Appeal decision said.
Steve Sanderson, chief executive of Wellington Airport said the company was disappointed with the decision.
“We will discuss next steps with the Civil Aviation Authority which is the principal defendant. It is too early to say what impact this decision will have on the proposed runway extension.”
The ruling appears to only apply to an extended runway, rather than prompt a review of Wellington Airport’s existing safety zone arrangements.
NZALPA “expressed their delight” at the decision.
“[A]s commercial pilots and air traffic controllers, our members have much to gain from an increase in flights landing and leaving from Wellington Airport, but not at any cost – especially if that cost is to the safety of passengers, local people, and airport staff,” NZALPA president Tim Robinson said in a statement.
Tuesday’s Court of Appeal decision criticised the decision-making process of the CAA, claiming its director failed to meet the required tests in coming to his decision on the Wellington Airport RESA.
“He was obliged to require a RESA from the threshold minimum of 90 metres to a distance of at least 240 metres providing that was practicable. There was nothing to suggest that the director undertook that critical inquiry or referred to evidence which might be relevant to it,” the Court of Appeal said.
“There was nothing in the material before the director to suggest that an extension to the RESA of an extra 150 metres (taking it to 240 metres) was not practicable.
“There was nothing to suggest a RESA of 240 metres was not feasible or able to be accomplished according to known means and resources; and there was nothing to suggest that a RESA of that distance was unachievable given the engineering technology available and the potential construction options for dealing with this site.”
The CAA said it was not able to immediately comment on the decision.