Wellington Airport Assumptions

Have been reading the business case for the proposed Wellington runway extension.

As a frequent traveler I’d love to be able to fly from Wellington to North America, Asia etc.

However I’m sceptical that extending the runway will lead to a huge increase in international connections.

The business case in section 3.4 assumes the following additional flights:

  • South-East Asia 4/week
  • USA 3/week
  • China 4/week
  • 3rd Asian 4/week
  • 4th Asian 3/week

Now it is very difficult to know the future. But for me a conservative approach is to look at comparable other airports.

Christchurch Airport services a larger population base than Wellington. It also is a hub for the entire South Island. And its runway is over three kms long – much longer than even an extended Wellington.

I’ve just checked their weekly flight schedule. The only additional flights they have beyond Australia and the Pacific (which Wellington already does) is a daily to and from Singapore.

So as much as I’d like to think a longer runway to Wellington will get us flights to four different Asian cities and to the US, I ask why would we get these, when Christchurch doesn’t?

In terms of investing in a runway extension, I think there is obviously a level of investment which would be beneficial to the airport owners. But this appears to be far less than the estimated $300 million cost.

I also accept there is a case for some ratepayer investment, on the basis that there is an economic gain to Wellington. The level is another thing.

But the case for taxpayer investment I remain sceptical of.  You need to be convinced that this extension will result in significantly more people flying to New Zealand.

UPDATE: Former Reverve Bank economist Michael Reddell blogs on this also. He notes:

One of the puzzling – or perhaps not so puzzling –  aspects of the report is the complete absence of any analysis of Christchurch airport’s experience with long haul flights.

The traffic forecasts, prepared by InterVISTAS, involve a central scenario in which in thirty years time there would be 56 long haul departures a week from Wellington (eight per day on average).   This is defended with the observation that “Wellington in 30 years time. (FY 2045) will have less than half the number of average weekly frequencies on long haul services as Auckland has now.”  And this was supposed to reassure me?  In addition to having almost four times the population of slowly-growing Wellington (and a larger hinterland), Auckland is inevitably a more natural gateway to New Zealand than Wellington is.  The authors go on to defend their assumptions with the observation that Adelaide has 44 weekly long haul departures (their forecast for Wellington in 2035).  But Adelaide is a city of 1.3 million people.

And still no mention of Christchurch.  Christchurch has about the same population as Wellington.  And if Auckland is one natural gateway to New Zealand, Christchurch is the other, given the much greater tourist appeal of the South Island (and the impossibility of long haul flights into Queenstown).  I couldn’t find an easy reference to how many direct long haul flights there are out of Christchurch at present, but there seem to five weekly flights to Singapore.  A new service to Guangzhou is also starting this month, so perhaps that is another five flights a week.  Other wide-bodied aircraft use Christchurch airport, but to get beyond Australia you still have to stop in Australia.

And it is not as if long haul international flights from Christchurch are relentlessly increasing.  I have distant memories of flying direct into Christchurch from Los Angeles, but that was 10 years ago, and the service is long gone.  AirAsia’s direct flights from Malaysia to Christchurch didn’t last long either.

Surely it is such an obvious comparator that the Christchurch experience really should have been addressed directly? 

I agree. Now there may be good reasons why a longer runway in Wellington may mean we’d get far more flights than Christchurch. Their airport might be run rather badly, and Wellington is not. But to convince sceptics, one really needs to do the direct comparison with Christchurch.

Michael makes many other useful points also – read his post in full if you have the time.

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