Airport risks ratepayers' $22mil

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In a timely reminder, the $22 million “risk” to ratepayers of Hamilton Airport’s ambitious expansion plans is highlighted in today’s Waikato Times editorial.

The local body-owned airport company, Waikato Regional Airport Ltd (WRAL), is hosting an open day on June 16 to explain its “master plan” for the pricey expansion.

Meanwhile, the International Air Transport Association says the airline industry is expected to lose $NZ14 billion in 2009 following the global economic meltdown.

The Waikato Times editorial points out that WRAL had just spent up large on a terminal upgrade despite Air New Zealand cautioning against it. Air NZ pulled out of international flights from Hamilton in April, only to have Pacific Blue step into the breach from September.

Meanwhile, undeterred by the uncertainty, and the fact shareholding councils are having to chip in $12 million to wipe out airport debt, it has pressed ahead with plans to extend the runway to take long-haul wide-bodied jets.

Ultimately, the extension to 3000m would make it the third longest runway in the country and that’s at a time when Auckland is expanding its own airport.

With the plan going public at the same time as the announcement of a suggested 22-storey hotel development for Hamilton’s Victoria St, anyone could be excused for thinking not only has the area passed through its much touted awkward adolescence but it is also skipping the leaving home phase and jumping straight into settled adulthood.

But is the airport over-reaching?

The Waikato is in a relatively minor tourism area, though undoubtedly the region holds the promise of considerable growth in other industries, some of which may welcome the access to Australian and Asian markets.

A Waikato University report has estimated the total economic impact of extending the runway over 20 years would be around $1 billion an increase in regional activity of $50 million a year.

Look at that figure and you could get excited. Look at the other side of the coin, and you could get concerned.

The cost of the extension has been put at about $22 million. Given the shareholders are councils, this represents a fair degree of risk to ratepayers.

A sale or part sale of the airport company would surely become almost inevitable. What chance Hamilton International Airport is already chatting to Tainui, along with overseas interests?

If the extension goes ahead, those living nearby will be getting a whole lot more noise, and are likely to make their own over the next little while. Already Narrows Landing owner Brian Hermann has told the Waikato Times he sees the extension as a positive development. But John Erkkila, who lives on Raynes Rd, says while he is already in an airport zone it would be another step again to have the noise of larger cargo planes flying in. He also points to the replication of developments up the road at Auckland Airport.

That seems relevant. Auckland isn’t that far away these days, thanks to the expressway. Depending on where you live it could be an hour and a half to Auckland Airport from the Waikato. Is that time saving enough to really make a difference, given Auckland will always have more destinations available and more frequent flights? Can Hamilton airport compete?

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