Softer landings for Rotorua Airport

Phil Campbell
 

The Rotorua community should, like the Allies relieving France of German occupation, welcome this week’s news of expansion of its airport.

Not that it is new news. Improvements had been signalled some time back. This time, however, it appears for the first time in a number of years the airport is relatively solvent.

The news won’t placate long-term sceptics of the airport, but figures produced which are obvious (full car parks is one visible clue) will go a long way towards salving the wounds of the past 15 years.

This in a way is a pyrrhic victory for the ratepayer. For five years they had to endure the faff of twice weekly return Rotorua/Sydney flights. To ensure the service, the Rotorua District Council underwrote Air New Zealand’s commitment by $1million each year.

The zeal with which the council pursued this aileron was in itself breath-taking. It came at considerable cost, not forgetting the final overall cost of $590,000 in legal fees over a resident’s complaint the council had acted illegally in tree removal at the southern end of the airport runway.

Once bullied through, the airport’s name changed from Rotorua Airport to Rotorua International Airport. The inaugural flight was crammed with locals, possibly the only time the aircraft carried capacity numbers.

Costs not generally known to the public – too much knowledge would have posed an even greater danger to sitting councillors – included landing costs, border patrol costs, environment and customs control.

At one point, one Rotorua councillor Glenys Searancke labelled the airport “technically insolvent”, which startled then chief executive Peter Guerin and other airport adherents.

Despite two or three sceptical voices on the council of the day, the venture was pursued, if only to cock a snook at thriving similar entities in Queenstown.

The prevailing Rotorua theory was that visitors, having embraced the district’s charms, would ski at Ruapehu than a hop, skip and flight to Queenstown.

Meanwhile, costs were increasing as infrastructure concerns mounted. Flights were also problematic. When size counts, aircraft were changing.

Rotorua’s unique caldera meant only certain aircraft could land and take off; passenger and fuel capacity of aircraft were closely monitored to meet flight criteria.

When Geoff Williams became new CEO of the Rotorua District Council and Steve Chadwick its new mayor in 2013, Rotorua International Airport (RIA) became RA again when they ended the transTasman service.

(The name change had been pushed through with the approval of the Key government. The Clark government, of which Chadwick had been a cabinet minister, resisted the extension of the title.)

A yoke had been lifted, a slight relief to council expenditure.

Last week’s improvement news was welcome. An upgrade of two stages in the vicinity of $9 million seems a paltry sum compared the finagling undertaken over the years to gild political misguided political aims.

The irony should not be lost on locals, either. For an arrivals hall used for the international flights is being utilised as part of the improvements – an unexpected cost saving.

The local council and the airport authority have been assisted by greater fortune for the district. Until recent years, Rotorua’s annual growth was at a moribund 0.2, not the latest figures have shot to 7.2 per cent. Hence the projections.

Air New Zealand has changed its strategy, too, after it appears a rark up from Shane Jones, the minister for the regions and a $1 billion cheque. Critical midweek flights for locals with work in Wellington, grounded in 2016, have resumed.

Locals are happy. And so too should sitting councillors be equally sanguine.

The buzz evident these days at the airport.

Filled car parks, a thriving rest area for passengers, and general bon homie have replaced the utopian world of politics of an earlier age with the practicalities of the present.


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