Airport money pot runs dry

STYMIED: Air Chathams is restricted to using its 18-seat Metroliner aircraft until the runway end safety area is extended.

CHANCES of Whakatane travellers being able to fly from Whakatane Airport in larger planes is being held up for want of cash from the Ministry of Transport.

An extension of the airport’s runway end safety area is required before Air Chathams can reintroduce its Saab 340 aircraft.

Air Chathams is currently forced to operate only its 18-seat Metroliner from Whakatane because of restrictions placed on the airport last year which stated only aircraft of 29 seats or less could be operated because of the current 90-metre runway end safety area.

A court of appeal ruling stated that airports required a 240-metre runway end safety area, eliminating Air Chathams’ 34-seat Saab 340 and 50-seat Convair when required.

The airport is a 50:50 joint venture between Whakatane District Council and the ministry, and the council has been left in the red after the ministry ran out of funding for joint venture airports.

Since January the council has been battling to get the ministry to pay its share of the airport’s operating losses and approved capital works projects.

Email records show the ministry had agreed to pay outstanding operating losses of $185,000 for the 2015 – 2018 years on January 3.

The council invoiced the ministry for those costs as well as the ministry’s share of outstanding capital works costs of $235,000 on January 16, but both remain unpaid.

The topic was hotly debated in the council meeting on June 7.

Councillor Gerald van Beek said he was “concerned the council is occurring all these capital costs with no guarantee of funding from central government”.

Councillor Scott Jarrett said the council wasn’t going “cap in hand” to the government.

“They are joint partners in this venture and they aren’t paying their share… they have reneged from their obligations,” he said

A report received at the council meeting indicated that the ministry’s annual budget of $500,000 for joint venture airport costs had already been fully committed for the current year, and pre-committed for 2018/19.

“A cabinet paper seeking additional funding is to be submitted to the Government, but until approved, the ministry cannot guarantee that it will be able to meet its share of historic approved costs, or essential future maintenance and upgrading projects,” the report read.

Air Chathams general manager Duane Emeny said the ministry’s budget of $500,000 for the five joint venture airports was “ridiculous”.

“Even just to ensure basic safety standards, such as resealing runways, $100,000 per airport doesn’t go very far.”

Mr Emeny predicts that as the region continues to grow so too will the company’s passenger numbers, meaning at some point in the future it will be imperative to land the company’s larger planes.

“Since we started operating out of Whakatane we have had significant passenger growth, currently we’re at 75 per cent [capacity]. As the region experiences growth year on year more people will want to live there, and they will need to travel; for that the bigger SAAB 340 aircraft would be perfect”.

However, since the council meeting Mayor Tony Bonne has met with ministry chief executive Peter Mersi.

Mr Bonne said the meeting was positive and both parties had committed to a proactive partnership to run the airport.

“The ministry is aware that the delay in payments and approval for essential projects, such as additional runway edge lighting costs and the extension of the runway end safety areas (RESAs) is having an impact on the airport operation,” Mr Bonne said.

“The RESA work is essential so that Air Chathams can use its larger SAAB 340 aircraft to increase seating capacity on peak services. That development will also ensure our transport infrastructure keeps pace with our economic growth needs, as well as delivering a much-improved customer experience.”

Ministry governance and commercial manager Ngaire Best, said the costs the council was claiming for stretched back to 2007.

“Given the length of time the expenditure covered, the ministry met with the council in February to discuss the costs. The council subsequently provided further information to the ministry in May,” Ms Best said.

“We expect to get back to the council by the end of this month with decisions around the past expenditure, and future funding.”

The council plans to continue to pursue the overdue payments for operating losses and approved capital works.