The Civil Aviation Authority has warned a court ruling on Wellington Airport’s runway extension proposal could end up slashing tourism in Queenstown.
On Thursday the CAA took its appeal against a Court of Appeal ruling on runway safety areas to the Supreme Court.
The case, brought originally by the New Zealand Airline Pilots’ Association (NZALPA), officially relates to Wellington Airport’s plan to extend its runway into Cook Strait in a bid to attract long-haul services.
But the aviation regulator has warned the Court of Appeal decision could hurt existing air services.
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Under international aviation rules, airports should have runway end safety areas (RESAs) of at least 240m where it is “reasonably practicable”, but the absolute minimum is 90m.
Both Wellington and Queenstown are allowed to operate with 90m RESAs because the surrounding geography makes longer safety areas difficult. Wellington’s runway has water at each end, while Queenstown Airport has the suburb of Frankton at one end and the delta of the Shotover River at the other.
Court documents show that if the airports were forced to shorten their runway areas by redesignating part of it as RESA, it could end jet services into both Wellington and Queenstown.
The Court of Appeal ruled that the director of civil aviation should reexamine a decision to indicate to Wellington Airport that it could continue with its existing safety areas were it to extend its runway, because the decision placed too much weight on cost when ruling out a longer safety area.
Francis Cooke QC, appearing for the CAA, told the Supreme Court that the ruling could mean the aviation regulator was applying the test incorrectly elsewhere.
“On the Court of Appeal’s approach, there will be a significant issue for airports such as Wellington and Queenstown now. Just how profound that will be will require proper analysis but it is something that bites here and now.”
One option available to the CAA would be to direct the affected airports to “paint on” additional RESA on what was currently designated as runway, Cooke said, however cutting the runway length would limit the type of airport which could land on the runway.
“The solution to the RESA issue, in one sense, is magically available tomorrow, because someone could simply take a tin of paint [to the runway],” Cooke said.
“But it would mean you probably wouldn’t have any tourism into Queenstown.”
Chief Justice Sian Elias suggested such a solution would require people to take trains to Wellington.
Cooke responded: “Which must be a major consideration.”
Later he admitted that the CAA had no analysis on the exact implications and it was possible tourists could fly into Queenstown and propeller planes could fly into Wellington, both airports would be significantly affected.
The decision was likely to have implications for the likes of Whakatane, Hokitika and Paraparaumu airports.
Cooke said there were no safety issues in the mind of the director of civil aviation at any New Zealand airports.
“All of the airports meet international standards. It would be great if we could have longer airport RESAs at all of these places, but we have to be realistic about the environment we have in those places, including Wellington Airport.”
NZALPA insists the Court of Appeal was right in its decision and the appeal of the CAA should be dismissed.
In submissions released to the media at the start of Thursday’s heading, lawyers for NZALPA suggested the appeal of the CAA was acting in the commercial interests of the airports.
Hugh Rennie QC said aviation had “zero tolerance of any risk of safety”. The assessment of what was practicable was what could be constructed in each circumstance, based on the individual facts.
“The appellants ask the court to speculate on how this test may apply at Wellington, and other, airports,” Rennie’s submissions state.
“In making his assessment the director must act independently and not as if he were the proponent of the airport’s business scheme.”
Rennie said the issue of practicability was relevant to Wellington Airport’s extension plans.
“If it is practicable in such circumstances for the airport to build the runway extension then why would it not be practicable also to build a 240 metre RESA?”