Serving New Zealand’s fourth largest city, this locally administered North Island airport has its sights firmly set on attracting Code E widebody jets within the next five years. Chris Penney explains.
Proudly displayed on the wall of the small military passenger processing facility at Ohakea is a photograph showing the day when four wide-bodied airliners – all Auckland diverts – were handled by the Royal New Zealand Air Force airfield. What it doesn’t show is that these aircraft were parked up at the air base for a considerable time with passengers onboard and APUs running while their crews waited for Auckland to reopen.
Auckland and Ohakea are currently the only two airports on the North Island with runways capable of handling the large ICAO Category E and F jets. It’s an issue that was thrown into sharp focus following the recent series of earthquakes in the Christchurch (South Island) region – New Zealand’s only other runway where such aircraft can land. This fact has not been lost on the management team at Hamilton (just 20 minutes flying time from Auckland), which now has planning approval for an eventual 9,840ft (3,000m) long Cat 3 ILS equipped runway that, when built, will see such inconvenient diversions become a thing of the past. Subject to what CEO Chris Doak describes as “minor” appeals, one of which concerns the test running of jet engines, Hamilton will be equipped to handle long-haul passenger and cargo flights in its own right.
Hamilton is the country’s second busiest airport in terms of movements, currently having a 7,215ft (2,200m) long runway plus a small paved strip and two grass runways for the numerous General Aviation (GA) movements that keep the tower controllers occupied. Mr Doak told Airports International: “We wanted to invest in market capacity, not assets.
“When there is a business case for extending the runway, we will do it. “We are not there yet but, for NZ $20-25 million [US $16-20m] – and that investment is small in international terms – we’ll be equipped to handle long-haul services to Asia. We just need a strategic partner, which could be another airport, and an airline to sign up to three-four services per week. Realistically I can see that happening from 2015.”
An 8,200ft (2,500m) runway would give unrestricted flights to all points in Australia – a sizeable tourist market in its own right but, by adding another 325ft (100m) this would allow target markets in Asia to be served direct. Asked if an expansion in commercial services would be at the expense of the airport’s substantial GA business income, Mr Doak’s reply was adamant: “No, in our main flight training operator, CTC, we have one of Australasia’s largest pilot training centres contracted to supply upwards of 200 airline pilots per year. In terms of leasehold arrangements and landing fees, we co-exist really well. It is a commercial arrangement, they are not poor cousins – we embrace our GA community. When there is an industry upswing our movements here have hit over 150,000 per year thanks to them.”
This cooperative attitude also prevails for the cluster of about 30 aviation-related businesses that reside opposite the terminal. These include the airport’s own commuter airline, Eagle Air, which these days flies in the colours of Air New Zealand Link; plus aircraft maintenance premises that can handle Airbus A320/Boeing 737 types as well as paint shops and aircraft manufacturing companies. When New Zealand hosted the Rugby World Cup in 2011, all these Hamilton-based businesses organised their own marketing event as a way of reminding visitors that the nation isn’t all about rugby; it has a home-grown and vibrant aviation industry as well.
Located centrally in North Island, Hamilton has around 1 million people within 90 minutes drive of the airport. That said, five airports serve the region, making the catchment area arguably one of the most competitive in New Zealand. Not content with the many tourism attractions, the surrounding Hamilton/Waikato region holds, the airport has bought into the local tourism organisation. It now helps to provide a strategy, structure and funding for the establishment of a clear regional identity.
Hamilton Airport has a commercial tie-up with Tauranga Airport, which is located on the region’s east coast. The alliance means Tauranga promotes Australian connections and other international flights and via Hamilton, with Hamilton selling Tauranga’s Bay of Plenty as a destination to arriving Australian tourists.
Hamilton’s original role as a regional domestic airport is changing. Air New Zealand operates to the main population centres – Auckland, Christchurch, Wellington (the capital) and Palmerston North with two ATR72s and two Beech 1900s, all of which night-stop. But as this airline is the only domestic operator some feel that ticket prices are artificially high.
“We would love Jetstar to come in here to provide competition with their A320 jets” said Mr Doak.
On the international front the recently rebranded Virgin Australia operates the former Pacific Blue service to Brisbane in Queensland four times per week under a code-sharing agreement with Air New Zealand.
The last two years have seen mixed traffic fortunes for the airport. Billed as a tourism bonanza, New Zealand’s hosting of the 2011 Rugby World Cup had its own side effects. “All the locals stayed at home and we lost all outbound traffic as a result,” said Mr Doak – a picture mirrored at other airports across the country. However, the Brisbane service has been the driving force behind the airport’s growth plans.
“For the near future our target market is long-haul to Asia. That’s where we see the growth coming from and the order books of Airbus and Boeing reflect this. Auckland is the default point of entry into New Zealand as the largest city but it only has the single runway.
“Currently tourism from China is booming, with New Zealand seen as a safe destination for an increasing number of middle-class earners, but tour operators currently waste a day with overnight stops before heading ‘down the road’ to this region’s many tourist sights.
“We are positioning ourselves as a full-service/low-cost international entry point. The City of Hamilton already has growing economic connections with Chengdu in China – that’s how these services start and, clearly, China is the largest Asian market. By having tourists arriving here they would gain a day to their itinerary. When ready we will be talking with Chinese airlines [that can fly direct to NZ], as well as Asian carriers that have fifth freedom rights to operate via Australia.”
Mention the Melbourne Cup to any Australian and it is instantly recognised as one of that country’s social highlights of the year. While the southern hemisphere’s most prestigious horserace attracts members of the racing fraternity from across the globe, perhaps less well-known is that the small town of Cambridge, just a 15-minute ride from Hamilton Airport, has supplied 13 Melbourne Cup winners and is awash with stud farms. It is this market that the airport is keen to tap into.
Mr Doak describes the equine community as being a, “really undervalued business” and it is his intention to provide a dedicated facility for the handling and movement of racehorses, mares and foals to Melbourne, Sydney and beyond. But it needs partners and funding to attract an operator and the runway extension to make this a reality. Initially the planned cargo apron would be housed next to the sole terminal but, as and when passenger traffic grows, freight operations will be moved to an area opposite, thereby reducing road congestion.
Another development expected to reap cargo traffic dividends in the future is Titanium Park, the airport’s 185-acre (75-hectare) mixed-use industrial and commercial business park joint venture with McConnell Property. The stage one sale of 29-acres (12 hectares) has already been bought by Torpedo7, New Zealand’s largest e-commerce retailer and logistics company, which will base its Australasian operations here. “Torpedo7 creates the need for a huge volume of airfreight from its online sales throughout New Zealand and Australia. It makes sense for them to be based by an airport and we are hoping it will be a catalyst for increased freight potential going forward, including attracting similar businesses to locate here,” said Mr Doak.
Central North Island is already the country’s leading export region with good road and rail connections through Hamilton city, so it is possible that a rail freight link could be added into the airport one day.
As far as current infrastructure is concerned, today’s passenger terminal building was rebuilt and extended in 2007 so it could handle two international flights at the same time. A four-spot parking apron is linked to the single runway by a central taxiway, which requires aircraft to backtrack. This will change with the planned airside redevelopment. Two high-speed turn-offs and taxiways to the end of runway holding points will be added. The modernised terminal was deliberately built with glass (not brick) end walls to allow for future expansion in either direction and parallel apron extensions can easily be put in place to provide the required extra stand space. To aid quick turnarounds there are no plans to add airbridges and the two-level terminal will eventually be linked from the mezzanine level by a walkway to an airport hotel that will be built landside.
Having experienced it, there is no doubt that Hamilton’s plane-to-car travelling time is impressive; you can be in your vehicle in less than 20 minutes. Asked if there was a temptation to charge for the current 30-minute free parking service offered Mr Doak replied, “No. With the convenience of our central North Island location our terminal process time is a real asset, people notice the difference and they love it. The free parking adds value; is good customer service and it also encourages people to use this option, but we have gone further. We have introduced a NZ$28 [US$22] standard car parking fee and now offer the online purchasing of your parking ticket with a discount for advance booking. In addition, all parking for passengers catching international [trans-Tasman Sea] flights will be free.” For an international airport this was a refreshing attitude to hear.
*More features about New Zealand’s airports can be found in the August/September edition of Airports International magazine.