Wellington Airport Runway Extension (RESA)

Update: Tuesday 3 October 2017

The New Zealand Air Line Pilot’s Association (NZALPA) has asked the Supreme Court to uphold and confirm the recent Court of Appeal decision on the safety areas required at major airports in New Zealand.

Earlier this year, the Court of Appeal determined that international civil aviation law, as applied in New Zealand law, requires 240 metre long safety areas, or such shorter distance as is practicable, and not less than 90metres.  Alternatively, a shorter distance can be used if specialised arrestor systems are also installed.

It 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.

This Supreme Court appeal, brought by both Wellington International Airport Limited (WIAL) and the CAA, is considering whether the Court of Appeal decision was correct. 

On behalf of NZALPA, its counsel Hugh Rennie QC argued that the Court of Appeal's decision was correctly decided, that the appeal 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.

These include incidents where the aircraft ‘undershoots’ (lands or takes-off short of) or ‘overruns’ the end of the runway.

The risk of such an incident, NZALPA says, 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 and international airline pilot Tim Robinson said outside the 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 modelled 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 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 Robinson.

Update: Wednesday 13 July 2016

NZALPA’s request for a Judicial Review in relation to plans by Wellington Airport to extend its runway and more specifically its RESA have been declined by the High Court.

Our legal and technical team is currently reviewing the judgement, following which a decision will be made whether to appeal.

One of our main arguments is that the RESA being proposed for the runway extension is inadequate and that decisions around the RESA’s length were made more on the basis of cost than concerns about the safety of our members and the travelling public.

We wish to see the RESA at Wellington airport constructed in line with internationally accepted best practice of 240 metres - either by physically extending the 90 metres currently proposed by WIAL or by the use of an EMAS to provide equivalence.

An announcement regarding any appeal will be made in due course.

NZALPA has filed in the High Court in Wellington proceedings against the Wellington Airport Runway Extension citing the runway extension planned is too short for international safety standards

The union is seeking a declaratory judgement from the High Court about the rules governing safety areas at the end of a runway.

The New Zealand Air Line Pilots' Association (NZALPA) Technical Director Rob Torenvlied said the safety area in Wellington was currently 90 metres.

He said he believed the law meant any extension should first include a Runway End Safety Area (RESA) of 240 metres, or an equivalent solution such as crushable concrete, which he said was considered international best practice.

Part 139 of the Civil Aviation Rules states: "A RESA must extend to a distance of at least 90 metres and, if practicable to a distance of at least 240 metres from the end of the runway strip."

Captain Torenvlied said because the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) was letting the airport go ahead with the runway extension, without extending the safety area, the union was seeking the judgement to clarify the correct interpretation of those rules.

"In our opinion, part 139 is quite explicit in that it mandates the provision of the 240 metre RESA when an airport extends its runway or builds a new one," he said.

"The director of the CAA has decided that the basic minimum of 90 metres is sufficient in the case of Wellington Airport - we disagree with him and therefore we have decided to seek this High Court interpretation."

The Civil Aviation Authority declined to comment until the judicial process concluded.

Decision could impact economic viability of extension

If the judge decides in favour of extending the RESA, it could undermine the economic case for extending the runway.