Any plans by Wellington International Airport Limited (WIAL) to extend its runway with only the minimal of safety precautions will likely have to wait until 2018 while an appeal decision is made by New Zealand’s most powerful court.
The five Supreme Court judges, including Chief Justice Dame Sian Elias, heard submissions from counsels acting for NZALPA, WIAL, and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) at a hearing over two days at the end of August.
Earlier this year, the Court of Appeal determined that international civil aviation law, as applied in New Zealand law, requires 240 metre long runway end safety areas (RESA), or such shorter distance as is practicable, and not less than 90m. Alternatively, a shorter distance can be used if specialised arrestor systems are also installed.
The Court had directed the Director of Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to reconsider his provisional view that only a 90-metre safety area would be required for an extended Wellington Airport runway. The Director considered that a greater distance was not practicable because of its likely cost.
WIAL says it cannot afford to build the RESA beyond the absolute required minimum of 90m, but it can afford to add 355m to the runway length. Nor is there any suggestion that WIAL will widen the existing runway, which is currently about half the required width, or comply with required runway signage although it can afford to build a new carpark.
The New Zealand Airport Association of New Zealand was also represented at the Supreme Court appeal but only gave a written submission.
The national media, including Dominion Post/Stuff and Radio New Zealand, reported a warning from the Civil Aviation Authority that it needed to appeal the original Court of Appeal decision because it could lead to slashing tourism and jet services to both Wellington and the country’s holiday hotspot, Queenstown.
The CAA said that the Court of Appeal ruling could hurt existing air services and meant that the aviation regulator was applying the test incorrectly elsewhere.
The Dominion Post/Stuff also reported that the CAA later admitted to the court that it had no analysis on the exact implications and it was possible tourists could fly into Queenstown and propeller planes could fly into Wellington, both airports would be significantly affected.
The CAA’s counsel said that there were no safety issues in the mind of the Director of Civil Aviation at any New Zealand airports.
Meanwhile, WIAL advised that, while jets flying domestically could still take off from the airport, it would only be with 50 empty seats, and none could fly to Australia.
On behalf of NZALPA, counsel Hugh Rennie QC argued that the Court of Appeal's decision was correctly decided, that theappeal should be dismissed, and the Director be directed to reconsider his March 2015 decision should WIAL maintain that application.
Most aircraft accidents occur during landing and take-off, Rennie explained.
These include incidents where the aircraft ‘undershoots’ (lands short of) or ‘overruns’ the end of the runway.
The risk of such an incident, he said, can be likened to the chance of a severe earthquake. Although the likelihood of an ‘undershoot’ or ‘overrun’ is low when compared to the total volume of air traffic, the consequences can be catastrophic.
The Court of Appeal considered evidence that a landing overshoot incident at Wellington Airport would likely result in the death of all on board. At the northern end, the presence of State Highway 1 lanes and traffic could cause further loss.
International aviation authorities including the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), the Federal Bureau of Air Safety, the Flight Safety Foundation, and other organisations in the UK and EU say that one critical safety measure to mitigate the risk of an overrun or undershoot incident is to provide a RESA of suitable length.
In the RESA, an overrunning or undershooting aircraft can come to a stop in safe off runway space, thus reducing damage to the aircraft and maximising the safety of those on board.
RESAs must be a cleared and graded area but do not have to be constructed to the same specifications as a runway.
NZALPA President Tim Robinson said outside the Supreme Court that Wellington Airport already has exemptions from the CAA for non-compliant Movement Air Guidance (MAG) signage (to prevent aircraft ‘straying’ on to the runway) and non-complaint runway width for international aerodromes.
“A non-compliant RESA will increase the risk of accident even further under Professor James Reason’s internationally recognised ‘Swiss cheese’ model,” Robinson said.
“In the Swiss cheese model, an organisation's defences against failure are modeled as a series of barriers, represented as slices of cheese. The holes in the slices represent weaknesses in individual parts of the system and are continually varying in size and position across the slices.
“The system produces failures when a hole in each slice momentarily aligns, permitting, in Reason's words, ‘a trajectory of accident opportunity’.
“Even though airline pilots have the most to gain from extended runways and the extra international flights, 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.”
Any WIAL application for appropriate consents under the Resource Management Act for a runway extension would be on hold, pending the Supreme Court decision, expected in the New Year.