‘Future of airport is a conundrum’
Why is the airport important to Ka¯ piti? The Ka¯ piti Coast Airport is significant to our community. It is part of our district’s history (the Queen visited here in 1954). It strengthens business, family and visitor connections and supports a strong visitor economy but the future of the Ka¯ piti Coast Airport is uncertain. Ownership of the airport changed in late 2019, and after taking time to assess things, the new owners have concluded the airport operations are not sustainable for them. It’s well known that airports don’t make money from air traffic. In fact, I’ve always described airports (including Wellington) as retailers with ancillary flight services. This is the case in Ka¯ piti but the benefits of having an operating airport in our community run much deeper than just profitability. Strong community support From the day Air New Zealand withdrew air services from Ka¯ piti our community has been telling us that retaining air services in our district is important. There was a public outcry and media coverage ensued. Surveys completed in 2018 and 2020, and more recently through our 2021-41 Long-term Plan consultation, show there is strong community support for the airport to remain an important asset in our district. While this show of support may not automatically translate to ticket sales, it is clear the airport is part of our social fabric and this should not be overlooked. Quantifying the benefits A study in 2018 conservatively estimated the benefits of the airport to our district to be in the region of $4.3 million per year, primarily due to travel time savings compared with flying from Wellington. We accept that it is almost impossible for the current airport owner to realise these benefits but what is important here is the benefit to our people and our district’s wellbeing. When deciding to invest in future air services for our district we imagined a future with Transmission Gully. A future where people residing south of our district will relish the opportunity to take the leisurely drive north, avoiding long queues and substantial parking fees, to fly from Ka¯ piti, and the potential for this to generate local employment opportunities through the need for more on-site airport services, the establishment of complementary air services such as freight and logistics, innovations in air travel and, importantly, additional regional flight connections. Council support for Air Chathams We have been very open about council’s support for Air Chathams. The $50,000 we provide each year to market Ka¯ piti as a destination is money well spent in my opinion. Many local businesses and community groups are benefiting directly from Air Chathams’ investment in our community. Council also provided support to help Air Chathams cover airfield flight information service (AFIS) costs imposed by Airways. Airways propose that the AFIS is unnecessary; successive owners have said that they are unwilling to agree to its removal, citing risk. We’re not aviation experts and expect any decision around AFIS would be guided by expert advice from within the sector. This will come from the aeronautical study that has been under way for over a year now. For now, it is enough to note that Airways have said it is not necessary, and in fact never has been. Consequently, when it was first proposed, Airways submitted against it, for the exact same reason. At the time the AFIS discussion was going on, council was committed to removing as many barriers as possible to assist Air Chathams in gaining a foothold in Ka¯ piti and, up until March 2020, this resulted in an egregious situation where council support was offsetting government charges to help ensure the route is successful. Dealing with the impacts of Covid-19 has been extremely challenging for the airline sector, and Air Chathams has not been immune to this. During the pandemic the Government stepped in to provide Air New Zealand with support, in particular with a large loan. At that time, similar support was not forthcoming for regional airlines which is why, given the level of uncertainty created by moving in and out of Covid-19 alert levels, council stepped up and agreed to look at ways to help. Given how much our community had invested in retaining air services, letting Air Chathams go at this stage was not an option. A support package, by way of a loan, was jointly agreed with the other councils that have Air Chathams services operating in their communities to help the airline restore their flight operations. It’s important to note that this most recent support package is not funded by rates. We’ve been able to draw on the strength of council’s balance sheet and low borrowing rates to reaffirm our commitment to working with Air Chathams. It helps give them certainty to look beyond the current Covid-19 environment and into the future. Looking to the future So what does the future hold? The truth is the future is unclear. We have an airport owner that has been very open about the fact that Ka¯ piti is not commercially viable as an airport and that they are in the business of building houses. We have hapu¯ that want to see their ancestral land returned to its rightful owners. We have a community and a council that wants to see an operating airport retained for the benefit of everyone in our community, and we have a government that does not want to intervene. To put it bluntly, it is quite a conundrum. No one is under the illusion that affordable housing is not needed in our district, and we’re actively planning for where the next 30,000 people are going to live in our district. One could argue that the airport land could be part of the solution. However, our District Plan does not provide for the land on which the airport sits to be used for anything other than an airport. Put simply the airport is not currently zoned for housing. Interestingly, nowhere in our long-term plan discussions around future infrastructure investment or in our discussions about when and how growth will occur in our district have we, working with our regional partners, looked to the airport land to provide a housing solution. That’s not to say there are not opportunities to investigate ways to satisfy everyone’s needs. It does not have to be housing or an operating airport. Rather than ‘or’, we could be talking ‘and’. With 110 hectares of land in the mix, it is entirely plausible that, with a little collaborative dialogue between interested parties, we might be able to secure a future where increased commercial activity in the Ka¯ piti Landing area helps offset the operational costs of running the airport. A future where Puketapu hapu gain access to their ancestral land. A future where the airport owners are enabled to meet their business objectives and build affordable medium density housing on the site for Ma¯ ori and young families in our community. Council holds many cards here and our intentions are clear — we want to achieve good outcomes for our district. We’d like to think this means the airport remains in operation for years to come.