26 May 2023

Whitianga Runway Woes

When Barrier Air made the business decision to add Whitianga to its routes, it was a decision that took investment in aircraft as well as the GPS equipment needed for Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) flying to make sure that their flights could land in the more inclement weather in the Mercury Bay.  Although no aircraft can land in all conditions with instrumentation, they can still land without the visibility dependencies of VFR. However, instrumentation has not been Barrier’s main issue with the Whitianga service.   The showstopper has the lack of an all-weather runway which is causing pain all around, with the airline, the passengers, freight movers and the faithful shuttle service (Whiti City Cabs) which still must navigate our treacherous roads when the planes cannot land. The “unprecedented” weather story is well-known. No one needs reminding about the anxiety this has given everyone in our community.  However, some of this anxiety might be mitigated a little by knowing there is a consistent option to fly.    This consistency has been eliminated by the lack of a paved all-weather runway, and with the last few weeks of weather and slips this issue is becoming chronic and higher priority than even before.  According to Grant Bacon from Barrier Air, the carrier had virtually no cancellations on their Great Barrier Island, Tauranga and Kaitaia services which all have sealed runways. At the end of this summer, Barrier Air pulled back on their number of flights to Whitianga to mitigate the stress on the shuttle service trips on our broken roads.  However, at the end of April, with forecasts for a drier winter, the airline reinstated their daily flights to two.  Unfortunately, over the last few weeks with the aggressive precipitation, this has put the whole situation under strain again. “Obviously those weeks of heavy precipitation were very tough, as we cannot put a four-tonne aircraft down on a waterlogged grass airstrip, so we had to use the shuttle bus every day which then creates its own challenges with the roads the way they are,” says Grant Bacon. With the isolation of our community growing worse, Grant sent an email on the subject to TCDC Mayor Len Salt on Monday, 8 May and a meeting was arranged to discuss this situation and opportunity. “Sealing the runway does make a lot of sense from a number of perspectives, for emergency connectivity, in the event of a natural disaster that cuts off Whitianga and surrounds long term, to business opportunities that would come out of increased numbers of visitors arriving by air,” says Mayor Len Salt. We need to work together to look at how the funds for this kind of investment are raised, as the airfield is not publicly owned and is primarily for private use and investigate whether we can leverage investment from government or other avenues.” Lynda Grant, Chairman of the Mercury Bay Business Association says that the MBBA is looking to form a leadership committee of key stakeholders in the Mercury Bay community to drive this project forward.  She says that this project makes sense on so many levels, commercially, socially, and for safety reasons.  The missing piece is a coherent campaign to raise the money to make it happen. “There are currently multiple priorities for our district. We are largely an area reliant on visitors for financial success of our businesses. Our roads need a serious investment to make them safe and robust to avoid the issues we have seen from this year’s weather events. We also must have multiple methods of getting in and out of the Peninsula and this is where it is vital the government spend some money to create an all-weather runway in Whitianga. Additionally, we need a reliable ferry service and all three of these have equal weight and need.   It is time to see some serious support being provided. Mercury Bay businesses are feeling neglected and are worried by talk and the lack of delivery. Just look at how many billions is going into Auckland transport and the millions spent on train services like Te Huia. Now is the time for the Government to step up and fund some options for Mercury Bay”. Evan Wheeler, Aero Club President says that the Aero Club is committed to driving such a project from their end, but with their feasibility study alone costing $90-100K, the whole project is a funding nightmare for the 160-member club.  The feasibility study needs to be a full engineering report, which will determine the actual costs which could be anything from $3-5 million dollars, plus ongoing yearly maintenance costs of up to 10% of that amount. He adds that the Aero Club would seal at least one runway tomorrow if they could, but it comes down to funding.  Evan is optimistic that if the Aero Club can provide consistency in landing conditions, then more commercial traffic will come.  He points to the Sound Air routes from Picton to Wellington, which are always busy, under very similar geographical conditions.   Evan adds that with consistency comes investment, and maybe even an air service to Hamilton for DHB services and more might be evaluated. Evan also clarifies the structure of the Mercury Bay AeroClub.  “The MBAC is not a private club, as has been mentioned, but is an ‘incorporated society’ which is not-for-profit. What this means is that if the developed airfield assets were ever sold by the society, any resulting revenue would have to be distributed amongst nominated community groups.  Evan says that “the airfield is not a community asset but an asset to the community.” Meanwhile, Grant Bacon adds that the Mercury Bay AeroClub have done a fantastic job cultivating and re-seeding one side of the runway which has improved things greatly. “The club have now re-seeded the second runway, but that runway is a year away from being used. He adds that Hopper’s drainage development work at the side of the airstrip has also been extremely beneficial.” Grant says that in spite of the issues with the weather anomalies, the Whitianga service is going quite well and there is high demand.  Barrier Air is still committed to being here because it is going so well.  Even on a quiet day, they are still moving a good number of people in and out of Whitianga.  But they need consistency to make the service more frequent. “If we got an all-weather runway, we would confidently add more flights and services. The services we could provide to the Mercury Bay are untapped.” Meanwhile, without the feasibility study to give us the options to make our runway all-weather ready, we don’t know the scope of the project. Perhaps we could find the money in our community to do this study and make this a reality in the near future. 

https://www.theinformer.co.nz/post/push-for-a-sealed-airstrip, 23 May 2023

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