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The ques­tion of wheth­er Wel­ling­ton Air­port should extend its run­way isn’t exactly a new one. It was first mooted as early as 1970 in a report by the New Zea­l­and Insti­tute of Eco­nom­ic Research. How­ever, over the last couple of years dis­cus­sion around it has heated up sub­stan­tially. Research sug­gests that 85 per­cent of Wel­ling­to­ni­ans are in favour of such a pro­ject, and in March 2013 Wel­ling­ton Air­port con­firmed they were con­sid­er­ing a 300-metre exten­sion, most likely to the south and built on a com­bin­a­tion of steel piers and reclaimed land­fill. Sev­er­al months later, Wel­ling­ton City Coun­cil agreed to con­trib­ute half of the $2 mil­lion cost of the research and resource consent.

Early in Octo­ber, Wel­ling­ton Air­port and Wel­ling­ton City Coun­cil unveiled a detailed report by con­sult­ants EY (formerly Ernst & Young). The doc­u­ment out­lines the bene­fits, both in terms of eco­nom­ic growth and con­nectiv­ity, that could come with extend­ing the south­ern end of the run­way. With air­line com­mit­ment, dir­ect flights to Hon­olulu, Los Angeles and many key cit­ies in Asia could be on the cards. Handled cor­rectly, it could reduce inter­na­tion­al travel time from the cap­it­al by a third.

Fin­an­cially speak­ing, EY’s ana­lys­is sug­gests that the pro­ject may bring $1.75 bil­lion into the nation­al eco­nomy, and $684 mil­lion into the Wel­ling­ton region by 2060. These bene­fits will come through pro­jec­ted increases in vis­it­ors, busi­ness and inter­na­tion­al stu­dents. The catch is the $300 mil­lion price tag for the exten­sion — and the ques­tion of who should pay for it. As stated in the report, “Stage one of this pro­ject will be the accu­mu­la­tion of all the facts: eco­nom­ic, eco­lo­gic­al and cul­tur­al. Stage two will be con­sulta­tion and con­sent­ing. If the facts and the people of Wel­ling­ton are sup­port­ive, stage three will be fund­ing and construction.”


Even­ing Post car­toon­ist Nevile Lodge pre­dicted thirty years of debate over the air­port’s future back in 1973. He was 12 years too optimistic.

It sounds like a good idea, and in gen­er­al Wel­ling­to­ni­ans are sup­port­ive, but not every­one is con­vinced. I talked to some people involved to get a clear­er vis­ion of what the exten­sion could mean for the city and the region.

The air­port is co-owned by Wel­ling­ton City Coun­cil and Infrat­il, so first off, I vis­it the offices of the com­pany that man­ages their invest­ment, H.R.L Mor­ris­on & Co. After enter­ing the post-mod­ern wait­ing room and walk­ing through a slid­ing wall, I’m greeted by Tim Brown. He’s their cap­it­al mar­kets and eco­nom­ic reg­u­la­tion man, and the chair of Wel­ling­ton Air­port. “The thing I like about this pro­ject is it’s only going to hap­pen if a lot of people in Wel­ling­ton want it to hap­pen,” he enthuses.

They’d been think­ing about an exten­sion for some time. But at a cost of $300 mil­lion, with only a $50 mil­lion bene­fit for the air­port, the num­bers didn’t make sense. “[Our CEO] Steve Sander­son had an idea,” Brown recalls. “He said, ‘Don’t look at it like that. Look at who else is going to bene­fit out of this thing, and can we get them to help pay for it.’ That was a real light-bulb moment… The obvi­ous way is get­ting tax­pay­ers and rate­pay­ers involved.”

Sander­son gave a break­fast present­a­tion to the Cham­ber of Com­merce. The May­or and a couple of coun­cil­lors were there. After­wards, the coun­cil com­mit­ted to provid­ing half the fund­ing for an invest­ig­a­tion. The air­port took them up on it, lead­ing to the EY report. “We’ve ended up think­ing it looks like a really good idea, but we still have the $50 million/$300 mil­lion prob­lem,” he admits. Giv­en this, they cre­ated a sim­pli­fied update avail­able as booklet/download, and a website.

We did the update because we need to cre­ate a pub­lic aware­ness with this issue,” Brown says. “The hope is that enough people will say, okay, we have the basic gist here. Then if they want, they can get involved at the next level by com­ing back and talk­ing to us about it.”

As their invest­ig­a­tion fund­ing sup­port would sug­gest, Wel­ling­ton City Coun­cil like the idea of an air­port run­way exten­sion. To find out how much they like it, I spent some time with Deputy May­or Justin Lester. “We see this as a major eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment pro­ject for the city,” he says. “We know it won’t hap­pen in the short term, but cer­tainly with­in the next ten years.”

Like Brown, Lester is quick to identi­fy the run­way extension’s fund­ing gap and poten­tial for sig­ni­fic­ant returns. The ques­tion they’ve been ask­ing them­selves is, ‘How much can we afford as a council?’

We would love the sup­port of the gov­ern­ment,” says Lester. “They’ve said they want to see the busi­ness case, and the busi­ness case is robust.” He enthuses about the project’s poten­tial to make Wel­ling­ton an inter­na­tion­ally com­pet­it­ive city, help secure its future and reduce travel times. “It all stacks up,” he says.

From his per­spect­ive though, what needs to hap­pen next? “We’re going to look at some money this year, some addi­tion­al fund­ing for resource con­sent applic­a­tions,” Lester explains. “I hope that will be approved and go through, and then it really just comes down to funding.”

Along­side coun­cil invest­ment with­in reas­on, and seek­ing gov­ern­ment sup­port, Lester also sug­gests the idea of a levy on air­port users. “I don’t think people would mind pay­ing an extra $5 to take a flight out of Wel­ling­ton if it means they can fly dir­ectly as opposed to ven­tur­ing via Sydney, Mel­bourne or Auck­land,” he says. “These are options we’d throw in the mix. Hope­fully, we’ll get some good sup­port… We as a coun­cil are com­mit­ted to see­ing it through.” Again echo­ing some of Brown‘s sen­ti­ments, Lester sees pub­lic under­stand­ing, engage­ment and sup­port as extremely important.

As much as he under­stands the enthu­si­asm, Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment Min­is­ter Steven Joyce thinks it’s import­ant to be cau­tious as well. Invest­ment into run­way infra­struc­ture around Aus­tralasia has shown that pas­sen­ger and flight num­bers don’t always meet pre­dicted demand.

There are many aspects of the way air­craft are routed between dif­fer­ent air­ports that are not imme­di­ately obvi­ous when you look at these sorts of pro­pos­als,” he explains. Auck­land is seen as the key hub for New Zea­l­and, while north­ern hemi­sphere air­lines head south to Aus­tralia first before fly­ing on to New Zea­l­and as a link. “The chal­lenge really is how much Wel­ling­ton can key itself into these emer­ging trends, bey­ond just extend­ing the run­way and plan­ning for flights to come.”

Joyce thinks the best people to assess what invest­ment to make in the air­port are the own­ers, and as part of that, their cus­tom­ers. If the share­hold­ers (the air­port and the city) are keen to invest, and the air­lines are sup­port­ive, the Min­is­ter thinks it’s a good sign. “Those sort of eco­nom­ic sig­nals really are import­ant, because they insure against mak­ing bad busi­ness decisions that are ahead of the game.”

The Min­is­ter describes the air­port and council’s hope the gov­ern­ment might invest as, “Effect­ively like say­ing, we don’t want to put in the money, but we’re quite keen for the tax­pay­ers to put it in.” He also notes the gov­ern­ment has already com­mit­ted $2.5 bil­lion to the Lev­in-to-air­port cor­ridor as a road­ing invest­ment. How­ever, he’s happy to talk with the air­port and coun­cil. “We don’t have big dol­lops of cash lying around to gift off in these situ­ations. It’s some­thing that will have to be worked though. I’m not say­ing they shouldn’t do it. I’m say­ing they’ve got to do it with their eyes open because it’s a big investment.”

When I talk to John Beck­ett, the exec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Board of Air­line Rep­res­ent­at­ives New Zea­l­and (BARNZ) by phone later that day, the ques­tion ‘Who’s going to pay for it?’ hangs in the air as well. He describes their dis­cus­sions with the air­port as being in their early stages. Beck­ett is inter­ested in see­ing a coun­ter­fac­tu­al, which is essen­tially a com­par­is­on show­ing what would hap­pen if the invest­ment went ahead along­side what would hap­pen if it didn’t.

As we under­stand it at the moment, the air­port believes that either the gov­ern­ment or the coun­cil would provide a large part of the cap­it­al,” he says. BARNZ don’t see cent­ral gov­ern­ment want­ing to take part in it, which would leave it with the coun­cil and the airport.

Beck­ett notes that if the air­port had to bear the full cost, they’d be seek­ing rev­en­ue of $50 mil­lion a year. “There may be an air­line in Asia or North Amer­ica that would be will­ing to fly into Wel­ling­ton. Chances are they would actu­ally seek a sub­sidy to do that, rather than con­trib­ute to this extra $50 mil­lion that the air­port would be seek­ing. By defin­i­tion, the ones that are already fly­ing in there don’t need the exten­sion. They have no desire to pay addi­tion­al charges for some­thing they don’t need… Alto­geth­er, if the air­port gets this wrong, it’s likely to be det­ri­ment­al to all the oth­er [flight] ser­vices to Wel­ling­ton that are important.

This is where we are at, at the moment,” he says. “We are start­ing to work a bit more deeply on it. We’ll be talk­ing to the air­port about it, and try­ing to get answers to our questions.”

Out­side of fin­an­cial con­cerns, there are ques­tions as to the impact the exten­sion will have on Moa Point res­id­ents and also the icon­ic ‘The Wall’ surf break at the east­ern end of Lyall Bay. Moa Point res­id­ent Martyn How­ells doesn’t see him­self as a spokes­per­son for the com­munity. How­ever, hav­ing already provided com­ment for a loc­al news­pa­per, he shared a few thoughts.

I would qual­i­fy my last state­ment that I wouldn’t like to lose my view, (because obvi­ously no one wants to lose their view, do they?), by say­ing, if there is going to be any pro­gress on this, I hope they do due dili­gence,” he says. “I’d hate to find myself in a situ­ation where after five years of con­struc­tion it’s been built, and then they dis­cov­er people aren’t com­ing to Wel­ling­ton just because we have a longer run­way.” How­ells con­tin­ues, “The fin­an­cial pre­dic­tions are very long term. The fig­ures that have been quoted are the amount of money it would bring into the area over the next 40 years. An awful lot can hap­pen in 40 years, can’t it?”

While an awful lot can hap­pen in 40 years, if it’s prop­erly handled the air­port and the council’s research sug­gests extend­ing the run­way could be very bene­fi­cial, not just our city, but to the whole coun­try. Dir­ect flights to Los Angeles, Hon­olulu, Tokyo and Manila sound pretty great, and the research makes some con­vin­cing argu­ments for eco­nom­ic value. As a city do we want it to hap­pen? If so, how do we want it to hap­pen? Do we need cent­ral gov­ern­ment to be involved? If they aren’t able to help, what sort of altern­at­ives are we will­ing to consider?


For more inform­a­tion, visit:



Wellington Airport Timeline


1929: Grass air­strip laid to form the basis of Ron­go­tai Aerodrome.

1938: Inter­na­tion­al fly­ing boat ser­vice oper­ates from Evans Bay.

1947: Ron­go­tai Aero­drome closed for safety reas­ons (the grass strip became too muddy in winter). Par­a­pa­raumu Air­port becomes New Zealand’s busiest as a result.

1950: Plans are developed for a com­pletely recon­struc­ted Ron­go­tai Air­port, includ­ing one pro­pos­al to move it entirely to the west of Lonsdale Cres­cent, roughly where the ASB Sports Centre is now. This devel­op­ment would have involved massive land reclam­a­tion or pon­toons to the north, some kind of mono­rail from the cause­way to the ter­min­al in Lyall Bay and a mod­el boat har­bour. In the end, it is decided to redevel­op the exist­ing Ron­go­tai Aero­drome site using land from the Miramar Golf Course.

1956: TEAL (fore­run­ner to Air New Zea­l­and) closes the Evans Bay fly­ing boat terminal.

1958: Houses are demol­ished, hills are bull­dozed and con­struc­tion commences.

1959: Wel­ling­ton Air­port is opened to the pub­lic on 25 Octo­ber 1959. The ter­min­al is a repur­posed cor­rug­ated-iron de Havil­land air­craft hangar, which des­pite being a region­al embar­rass­ment, was not prop­erly replaced until 1999.


Ron­go­tai air­port plan 1950. Neg­at­ives of the Even­ing Post news­papaer. Ref: 114/182/01‑G. Alex­an­der Turn­bull Library

Early 1970s: Run­way exten­ded to 1,936 metres to allow for DC-8s (which were about to cease pro­duc­tion as they were super­seded by new wide-bod­ied Boe­ing jets).

1986: Cor­rug­ated-iron ter­min­al build­ing refur­bished but not replaced.

1998: Wel­ling­ton Air­port privat­ised. Now 66 per­cent is owned by Infrat­il, with the remainder owned by Wel­ling­ton City Council.

1999: New ter­min­al opened.

2011: The innov­at­ive (and unusu­al) new inter­na­tion­al ter­min­al, The Rock, wins mul­tiple archi­tec­tur­al awards.

2014: One of Weta’s giant eagles sus­pen­ded above the ter­min­al crashes to the ground dur­ing the Janu­ary earthquake.