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Supreme Court rejects Wellington Airport's runway extension appeal

Thursday 21st December 2017

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The Supreme Court has batted away Wellington International Airport's appeal to allow a shorter runway safety area than what pilots insist is needed, saying the Civil Aviation Authority went about its decision-making the wrong way in signing off on the proposal. 

Chief Justice Sian Elias and Justices William Young, Susan Glazebrook, Ellen France and Terence Arnold unanimously dismissed the airport's appeal, saying the regulator's decision started from the wrong point which led to the approval of a 90-metre runway end safety area (RESA) for a proposed extension to the landing site. International standards call for the RESA to be at least 90 metres, and if practicable, at least 240 metres. 

The ruling, delivered by Justice Arnold, said the Civil Aviation Authority director erred in law by acting as if the legislation hadn't been amended to strip out the 'reasonable cost' element in promoting safety. The director was also mistaken in using the airport's proposal as a starting point rather than what the rules required, the judgment said. 

"We consider that it is not consistent with the act as it presently stands to assess practicability solely by reference to WIAL's costs as balanced against the increased level of safety that would result," the judgment said. "We see WIAL's intended benefits as being relevant to the practicability analysis as well." 

The issue ended up in the courts when the New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association took the case due to concerns about the shorter safety run-off area. 

The judges upheld the Court of Appeal's ruling in favour of the pilots' association and ordered the airport and Civil Aviation Authority to pay costs of $30,000 plus disbursements to the union. 

"As we understand it, WIAL's current extension proposal will require a further acceptance from the director," the judges said. "The director should consider that application in the light of the court's reasoning." 

The pilots' association welcomed the decision, saying the longer RESAs or use of specialist arrestor systems on shorter distances helped mitigate the damage caused in an undershoot or overshoot situation. 

"Even though airline pilots have the most to gain from extended runways and the extra international flights they encourage, safety will always be our first priority and this should also be so for both New Zealand’s airport companies and especially for the CAA," said association president Tim Robinson said in a statement. 

Wellington Airport chief executive Steve Sanderson said the transport hub was still committed to extending the runway and will review the judgment. 

"We remain committed to the project and will be informing the Environment Court of our next steps in due course," Sanderson said. "While we need to take time to review the decision and consider our re-application to the Civil Aviation Authority, the Supreme Court’s judgement and interpretation is encouraging and provides more guidance on what the CAA should take into account." 


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