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Court of Appeal backs pilots on Wellington runway extension safety areas

Tuesday 28th February 2017

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The future of Wellington International Airport's proposed runway extension is unclear after the Court of Appeal ruled the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) must reconsider its decision on the length of a runway safety area.

The New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association was successful in its application to the appeal court to overturn the CAA's decision to approve a 90 metre runway safety area (RESA) for the proposed extension. Under international standards, a RESA - a safety zone if a plane undershoots or overruns the runway surface - must be at least 90 metres and "as far as practicable" at least 240 metres. An earlier bid by NZALPA to have the CAA decision quashed was rejected by the High Court in March 2015.

The CAA must now reconsider Wellington Airport's application in accordance with the appeal court's judgment, with the CAA and Wellington Airport also ordered to pay NZALPA's legal costs. 

"Our review leads us to the inescapable conclusion that a RESA must extend to 240 metres in length unless it can be shown that it is not practicable," the appeal bench said. The CAA can only approve a shorter RESA if it extends as far as possible between 90 and 240 metres, and must consider the use of engineered arresting systems, it said.

Wellington Airport's chief executive Steve Sanderson said he hadn't yet reviewed the judgment, delivered this morning, in detail, but he was disappointed by the Court of Appeal's decision. 

"We will discuss next steps with the Civil Aviation Authority, which is the principal defendant," Sanderson said. "It is too early to say what impact this decision will have on the proposed runway extension."

CAA director Graeme Harris approved the 90-metre RESA on the basis it provided an acceptable level of aviation safety risk based on advice from consultants McGregor & Co. He took into account McGregor's conclusion that the safety benefits of extending the RESA to either the full 240 metres or an intermediate 140 metres were "greatly exceeded" by the cost, which is about $1 million per linear metre, and this made it unpracticable to require a longer RESA.

The Court of Appeal, however, said cost was "not a predominant factor to be balanced against the requirement of promoting safety", and should only be of limited relevance in determining what is feasible. 

The airport, which is owned 66 percent by infrastructure company Infratil and 33 percent by the Wellington City Council, wants central government and Wellington ratepayers to share the estimated $300 million extension costs. It argues the benefits would accrue more to the country and the region rather than the airport owner, which cannot justify the expansion on purely commercial grounds.

Environment Court hearings on the resource consent application for the proposed extension are scheduled for June, with Air New Zealand, NZALPA, and ratepayer and resident associations expressing opposition. 

 

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