Feature Image: Wrong airport, but the picture was too good to pass up. Zombies from Extinction Rebellion protest the expansion of Wellington Airport, January 2019. Source: Zombie Apocalypse Monthly.
Kāpiti Coast Airport has hardly any flights and is living on borrowed time, but it just won’t die. Now a new report concludes that it “cannot remain operationally viable”.
By Paul Callister
In Glasgow, world leaders will be making big global decisions. These will have a major impact on whether we can avoid the worst of global warming. But it is also local decisions that will increasingly determine whether towns, cities and countries can reduce their emissions.
Throughout the world, aviation continues to get support from governments and local councils. It is also one of the sectors most difficult to decarbonise, especially as growth is still being promoted.
In New Zealand, regional air travel is subsidised in various ways. Sometimes it is through local authorities owning uneconomic airports. Or it can be through direct subsidies of airlines. This tends to spread the cost of air travel across the whole community, with the benefits mostly going to the better off members who also tend to have the highest emission profiles. Kāpiti Coast District Council provides direct support to Air Chathams. It now also wants to find ways to support the local airport.
Kāpiti airport needs to close. It is uneconomic and it is in the wrong place. It would be better suited to housing, which would help reduce local transport emissions. It will not get better. A report on the future of the airport undertaken in September 2021 by aviation consultancy group Lockie Airport Management highlights multiple problems.
Despite this, the future of Kāpiti’s “ghost” airport continues to be contested. In a report back to submitters on Kāpiti’s Long-term Plan, the council states that ‘the future of the privately owned Kāpiti Coast Airport is uncertain’. If the council had undertaken a number of measures, including taking advice from airport experts, undertaking a full cost benefit analysis of airport operations, and had looked at small airport ownership around the world, or considered the airport’s alternative uses, they would have realised the future is absolutely certain. The uneconomic, and potentially unsafe, airport will eventually close. Medium to high density houses and apartments will be built on the site helping solve the housing crisis. These houses will be close to the centre of Paraparaumu and public transport, with already-established walkways and cycleways. This is the intensification the government is trying to promote. It is something a council, which has declared a climate emergency and which expresses concern about housing, should support.
Instead, based simply on a popularity contest, the council has indicated that it will explore ways to have a role in the airport’s future. They say this will include operating the airport under a lease or owning it in partnership. Exploring these options will further waste ratepayer money and delay the construction of desperately needed housing.
A key problem is runway length. The runway is physically 1450m in length, but technical constraints caused by roads, houses and terrain mean that there is only 1042m available for landing from the North, or 1187m for landing from the South. Practically, this limits the size of passenger aircraft the airport can accept. The largest was the Bombardier Q300s operated by Air NZ. These have 58 seats. However, they were not able to use all of them when flying from Kāpiti due to the available runway length. Air New Zealand are phasing these aircraft out in favour of the ATR72, which cannot realistically land with a full load of passengers at the airport. Air Chathams SAAB 340s are currently the largest aircraft using the airport at 36 seats. Other than Air Chathams and Air NZ, no other airline currently has a 30 seat plus aircraft capable of using the airport. This seriously limits opportunities for growth. Mayor Gurunathan has been reported saying that he does not want Air New Zealand back anyway.
Then there is Runway End Surface Area (RESA). The report says that the airport has the minimum allowable RESA length of 90m when the preferred length is 240m. The 90m RESA was re-approved in 2019. However, the report states a RESA below the recommended specification of 240m will not be approved again. The report says that other airports which have applied for reduced RESA’s since Kāpiti’s was approved have been unsuccessful. Extending the RESA is not practicable due to fixed flight path obstructions, a road, a number of private houses and a retirement village.
But it does not end there. There is an Obstacle Limitation Surface issue (OLS). The OLS is the required clear flight path on approach and departure to maintain suitable margins in poor weather and emergencies. There are around 900 noted objects to monitor spread over several hundred neighbouring properties. The objects are mostly trees but also chimneys, antennas, street lights and buildings, which add to the practical limitations on extending the runways and RESA.
A key lobby group for keeping the airport open is the aero club. Under the banner “Kāpiti Air Urban”, the club and a group of other airport supporters make some startling claims that are not supported by international evidence. An example is that by 2030 40% of aviation fuel will be from sustainable sources. In a paper on sustainable aviation fuels, Air New Zealand suggests a ‘drop’ in rate of 2.5% by 2025, reaching 25% by 2040. But, more problematically, the clubs’ activities do not provide the income needed to sustain an airport. There are plenty of good options for relocating the aero club, including the Foxpine airstrip, or even Palmerston North.
Kāpiti Air Urban clearly see innovation, including electric flight, solving the airport’s problems. This will be an argument we increasingly see. Why invest in regional passenger rail when electric planes are just around the corner?
Unfortunately for Kāpiti, electric planes also will not solve the economic viability or safety issues. Even if they eventually fill a niche in short hop air travel, they will not be common in our skies any time soon. Those under the flight paths will not welcome experimental planes flying over them. Far better that they fly out of Palmerston North or Wellington airports with flight paths away from major housing. These airports will also be able to fund the expensive charging infrastructure.
KCDC is now consulting on a growth strategy. It wants to house an extra 32,000 people by 2051. There will be some intensification, but the draft also suggests some greenfield development. The latter will inevitably lead to further sprawl and increase the region’s transport emissions just when we need to be reducing them.
The current airport owners, the Templeton Group, are housing developers. Instead of wasting money on impractical schemes to keep the airport open to support a high emissions industry, the council should be working with these developers to build the houses the district so badly needs.