Our Airports: Only the Truth Will Do
Almost two weeks have passed since Monday, April 29th. It has taken that long to understand some of the unusual events that happened on that day.
It was the day that a Frankton group revealed radical plans to relocate Queenstown airport and use the land for much needed housing and community facilities. It was also the day of multiple developments in Wanaka, many behind closed doors.
In many ways the Wanaka developments were more dramatic than those that took place in Queenstown.
The chain of events started at a full Council meeting back in March where Mayor Jim Boult called for a fix to "misinformation" about the future of Wanaka airport. An approach by Crux to Naomi Lindsay, the airport corporation's Wanaka communications advisor, met with a stonewall statement that there would be no clarification around Wanaka until September - to allow more community "conversations" to take place. Mayor Boult attempted to paint speculation about Wanaka airport's future of "London Heathrow proportions" as patently ridiculous.
On April 2nd the airport corporation's General Manager, Communications and Community, Jen Andrews, made the surprise announcement that she and her husband were taking 5 months off to travel overseas. Her email to local media said that her work mobile phone was being handed to Naomi Lindsay and that "it will be handed over to the new General Manager once appointed."
Fast forward to Monday April 29th. On the same day as the Frankton group detailed their proposal to raise $1.6 billion by selling Queenstown airport land to fund a new regional airport and 5,000 new houses some extraordinary events were unfolding in Wanaka.
A series of Wanaka meetings had been organised by the airport corporation, all with media excluded. But a story emerged the next day from the ODT's Wanaka reporter Mark Price referring to a media statement issued on the Monday by the airport corporation "Jet flights proposed by 2025". The story also referred to "a handful of flights" in early years and "several years thereafter."
Crux was contacted the following day by Acting GM Communications and Community Naomi Lindsay who objected to the safety issues reported by Crux from the Frankton meeting presentation. More on that in a minute, but we took the chance to ask Ms Lindsay about the previous day's "media statement". Lindsay told Crux that the ODT's Mark Price "had stumbled across" some new information on the airport corporation's website. There was no media statement.
The information was in fact spotted by Michael Ross who heads the Wanaka Stakeholders Group, a group that objects to large scale Wanaka airport expansion. He then alerted the ODT. Ross himself had experienced a dramatic day where he felt he was being excluded from various "conversations" the airport corporation was involved in. Crux was also told that negative comments were being removed from the airport corporations own online survey, making the survey of doubtful value. We are currently investigating this claim.
Crux asked Naomi Lindsay the following day what "a handful of flights" meant. She replied "one flight a day." A quick calculation showed that would result in less than 100,000 passengers a year, well below the 400,000 number that the airport corporation has been using as the bottom end of a scale that has two million passengers at the top end. The corporation says it is still working towards 7.1 million passengers by 2045 for Queenstown and Wanaka with Queenstown airport reaching absolute capacity of 5 million passengers and therefore needing to put 2.1 million through a new Wanaka airport. That Queenstown number of 5 million assumes the airport gets new noise boundaries, that the community has 92% opposed in the corporation's own survey.
The Frankton residents meeting on April 29th quoted airport corporation CEO Colin Keel as telling a QLDC councillor that "the noise boundaries will be changed."
But the fallout from the airport corporation's busy but secretive Monday in Wanaka continued last week. Naomi Lindsay was quoted on Wednesday May 1st in the Otago Daily Times as saying the new Wanaka Airport could cost up to $400 million and that "international flights were a possibility". Clearly things were changing rapidly from "one flight a day" and "no new information until September." This is all in the context of QLDC's CEO Mike Theelen refusing to support an independent survey of Wanaka residents saying that the airport corporation's Statement of Intent (yet to be approved) would "reinforce the need for the company to work closely with its affected stakeholders and community groups, and that council will need to hold its company (QAC) to account".
Incidentally, Ms Lindsay told Crux that recruitment "was still progressing" for someone to do Jen Andrews job. A Crux/Ethelo survey currently underway shows the community is 44% "Very Dissatisfied" with the airport's engagement process so far with another 24% "Somewhat Dissatisfied". The remaining respondents were split between Neutral (15%), Somewhat Satisfied (10%) and Very Satisfied (7%).
On Saturday May 4th the ODT reported that a new regional airport, rather than expanding Queenstown and Wanaka, had had a "bucket of cold water" thrown on it by the Chairman of Wellington International Airport, Tim Brown, saying it was going to be really hard to get through planning issues. Mayor Boult has made the same point on a number of occasions. And yet Air New Zealand seems to support the idea of a new regional airport from their surprise submission to the Queenstown expansion survey last year.
Wellington airport becomes very relevant to Queenstown in the context of runway length. Wellington has just had to suspend their well-advanced plans for expansion due to an international review of safety linked to the minimum length of runways, and Runway End Safety Areas (RESA's).
This issue may well dictate the entire future of the Queenstown/Wanaka airport debate. The explanation is a bit technical but worth understanding.
Aircraft need a decent length of runway to land on. Queenstown airport is currently at the very minimum length for jet aircraft and has a "Black Star" safety rating - the worst rating possible. Pilots need special training to land at Queenstown airport, with the runway and approach being so technically challenging that co-pilots are not allowed to undertake a landing.
One of the biggest risks is an aircraft "running out of runway" and overshooting into either the Shotover River or the houses and lake at the southern end of the runway. Modern aircraft have safety data recorders that run all the time. If a landing is difficult or "long" (at risk of over overshooting the runway) then the pilot gets a phone call and email from the airline containing a "please explain." This system is not designed to judge or criticise the pilot, just improve safety. The safety warnings do not go to the Civil Aviation Authority, but are dealt with in house by the airlines.
Crux has been told of an increasing incidence of these "please explain" messages from the airlines to the pilots concerned. This does not mean that lives were put at risk, just that Queenstown airport may be operating at the very edge of what is safe. However, one commercial pilot has told Crux that an accident at Queenstown airport is a "statistical certainty", especially given the increasing frequency of flight movements.
The NZ Airline Pilots Association (NZALPA) has previously expressed concerns about Queenstown airport safety, but is now unusually reluctant to discuss the issue, even though there is pressure from their pilot members for an extensive survey of pilot's Queenstown airport safety concerns. Crux enquiries to NZALPA have been fielded by a Christchurch PR company. The NZ Airports Association says that safety is not an area they deal with.
Air New Zealand has also been strangely silent on the issue of Queenstown/Wanaka expansion. On the question of increasing "please explain" safety messages to pilots, Air NZ issued this statement to Crux from their Chief Pilot David Morgan.
“Air New Zealand continues to have confidence in the safety of its operations at Queenstown Airport. Your questions appear to refer to a new piece of software which was installed on our Airbus A320/21 aircraft which further improves safety by providing pilots with additional information prior to touchdown under certain operating conditions.
"It’s entirely wrong to assert that these alerts equate to a safety issue. In fact the opposite is true. The alerts improve the overall safety of the operation.”
We received this response from Virgin Australia, who indicated that their safety data system showed "no heightened risk" regarding Queenstown airport operations.
"Virgin Australia has extensive training programs in place for our pilots that covers all regulatory elements and internal safety standards, including a Queenstown specific qualification, which must be attained prior to operating into this airport. Virgin Australia pilots operating into Queenstown Airport are trained and experienced on the adverse weather conditions that can often affect the airport and surrounds and are able to determine if suitable conditions exist to conduct a safe landing or divert to another airport."
No response has yet been received from Qantas.
Internationally the whole issue of Runway End Safety Areas, or RESA's, is being re-assessed, resulting in the suspension of Wellington airport's runway extension plans. Many pilots, including their union NZALPA, have been pushing for Queenstown to have an expensive $10 million EMAS system installed at each runway end. EMAS, or Engineered Material Arresting System, slows an overshot aircraft down using special collapsible type ground material, hopefully before it ends up in a river or lake.
One study that Crux has seen suggests the $10 million EMAS cost compares to hundreds of millions of dollars in terms of death, injury and loss of reputation for a tourist destination such as Queenstown. A serious aviation accident, coupled with our lack of a proper hospital, could cause negative repercussions that could last for over a decade, especially as the pilots themselves have been calling for safety improvements over many years.
One other pointer to the Queenstown airport corporation being "economical with the truth" was the unusual visit of the CEO of Dunedin Airport to Queenstown on January 24th. The usually outgoing Richard Roberts had made arrangements to speak with Crux about Dunedin and Invercargill airports wanting to collaborate with Queenstown, even going so far as to get his Chairman's approval. But when in Queenstown Mr Roberts mysteriously lost his enthusiasm to talk after a meeting with Colin Keel.
The bottom line with all of these elements is that we are not being properly consulted on the question of airport expansion, or safety. The community is not blind to the need for our local economy to do well, if not expand. Jobs and business futures are at stake. The expansion of our airports is about far more than two runways - it is about growth, sustainability and how our communities want their futures to be shaped.
As the district's most highly paid employee on $500,000, QAC Chief Executive Colin Keel seems to be playing a dangerous game with airports that are 75% owned by us, the ratepayer. The sale of 25% to Auckland airport is famous as one of the most regrettable and underhand deals in our local history. The airport corporation contributes around $7 million to QLDC each year, just about enough to pay for the new sewer pipes under the Kawarau bridge.
This is a fundamental conflict between largely external commercial forces and the local community that pays a high premium to live here. In addition, the full force of the global climate change debate is starting to impact our decisions on our airports and the level of tourism that is sustainable.
It is time we were told the whole truth.