Chris Penney visited New Zealand’s booming capital city gateway, which has opened a new international facility to double capacity.
Whilst serving the world’s most southerly capital city, Wellington has experienced a diverse range of traffic during the last two years. From earthquake evacuation flights to Rugby World Cup charters and increasing FBO traffic, it’s dealt with it all, while at the same time continuing to develop plans to maximise capacity and operational efficiency.
Unusual in having an off-airport ATC Tower, no airside roadway and a surfers’ beach just a stone’s throw from its perimeter, Wellington has quietly gone about the business of catering for future growth needs. Passenger numbers are expected to reach 10 million by 2030 from the current 5.3 million, and the NZ$450 million (US$356m) investment needed to cope with the increases has to fit within what is, by international standards, a very constrained central city site of just 272 acres (110ha) with the sea at either end of the runway. This has led to passenger and freight operations being concentrated on the main eastern side of the single 6,350ft (1,936m) runway, with all other services on the western apron.
The consolidation of passenger facilities has taken place in phases since the late 1990s, bringing together three separate airline and airport-run terminal operations. With international traffic on the rise the airport’s management was faced with a situation whereby passenger numbers and space constraints prevented it from totally demolishing structures and starting again. The resultant re-design delivered a central terminal with a south-west domestic pier able to handle four Airbus A320-size jets and a ground-level south pier for up to six turboprops. International operations have now been brought together under one roof in the enlarged north-west pier aptly named ‘The Rock’, unveiled in late 2010. The award-winning new international arrival and departure facility has added two new gates and, more importantly, doubled international passenger handling capacity to 1,000 per hour. This was a major step forward in its expansion plans which will eventually see the number of apron gates increase from 28 to 42. The dual-use facility has domestic swing-gates amongst its eight airbridges and can accommodate two Code E-size aircraft.
As the name ‘Rock’ implies, Studio Pacific Architecture and Warren and Mahoney took their design inspiration from the geology of the city’s south coast location, situated on the southern tip of New Zealand’s North Island. They created cliff-like aesthetics within the outer dome-shaped copper-clad shell – glass fissures within the roof allow in natural daylight and at night backlighting creates a warm glow.
With seating for 600, The Rock recycled and reused various existing structures, among them refurbished airbridges, lounge seating and, in keeping with the country’s strong environmental image, its many green credentials include the use of ramps instead of lifts or escalators wherever possible.
Unveiled in time for New Zealand’s hosting of the 2011 Rugby World Cup it was put to the test when the airport had its busiest ever day with over 20,000 passengers handled – including three times the usual number of international travellers being processed.
Prior to this event, Wellington played a crucial role in the aftermath of the South Island’s earthquake when Christchurch was badly damaged in February 2011. A national emergency was declared and Wellington was thrown into the spotlight, becoming the centre for coordinating the nationwide response as well as the international aid effort that flowed into the city. The military set up a sea and air bridge between the two islands and the airport’s night-curfew was suspended and landing fees waived.
It immediately became clear that the airport would need more than its usual complement of staff to handle the extra traffic and an army of volunteers was called upon from the local community. The whole mezzanine level was given over to the relief and recovery effort. The first priority was to evacuate all non-New Zealand residents from Christchurch and all these foreign nationals who had to transit through Wellington on their way home. Numerous nations from around the Pacific offered assistance in various forms and a considerable number of military movements were handled as a result. Wellington also donated its entire online booked car parking revenue for the month to the national earthquake appeal, raising NZ$200,000 (US$158,344).
Then in June 2011 the ash cloud from Chile’s Puyehue volcano grounded flights on both sides of the Tasman Sea. In all 2011 proved to be a challenging year.
On the domestic front – which accounts for nearly 70% of weekday travellers – the airline sector has stabilised following consolidations. While both Qantas and Virgin Australia have withdrawn from flying internally, Qantas’ low-cost arm, Jetstar, has stepped in and Air New Zealand has upped its schedules to compensate. In December Jetstar introduced a Queensland route and increased Auckland services.
Australia remains Wellington’s largest international market and the airport has been bucking New Zealand’s traffic trends as CCO, Matt Clarke, explained. “We have been experiencing double-digit growth on trans-Tasman routes, a trend that started in 2010 with an increase in capacity, services and attractive fares. Australian visitor figures have risen 15% in the last year – significantly higher than the national average.”
While this is welcome news, the airport is still looking to further increase its route network to Australia. With the close economic, cultural and governmental ties that bind the two neighbours together, the opening of a Canberra route would link the two capital cities directly. Other Australian destinations being targeted are those to the Gold Coast in Queensland and Perth in Western Australia.
Meanwhile the management team is keeping an eye on the future introduction of the Boeing 787 by Air New Zealand and the Airbus A350 by Asian carriers as an opportunity to develop new city pairs. “Flying direct saves time,” said John Howarth, Chief Operating Officer, adding, “with a doubling of terminal capacity and a spectacular new facility for travellers to enjoy, we expect further international growth [with the 787/A350 introductions] in the near future.”
Befitting its capital status Wellington now also has a world-class FBO, the new facility being leased from the airport by Execujet with handling provided by Capital Jet Services. The dedicated 21,500sq ft (2,000m2) hangar is able to handle corporate and VIP charter flights as well as meet long-term parking requirements.
With only a single runway to cope with its growth in movements, the airport is fortunate in that its domestic and international peaks do not conflict.
However, during periods of low-visibility operations the runway can reach its capacity. With terminal facilities now all concentrated in one central location, reorganising the taxiway layout to handle future movement increases is now the focus. John Howarth commented, “with the trend to upgrade to larger aircraft there will be a reorganisation to improve ground operations. Movements are forecast to increase by 10% by 2030 and, with just the one runway and no room for another, we must ensure the best possible operational use. Movements can reach 35 per hour in good weather and we can increase operating efficiency by adding new turn-offs, widening existing taxiways, and adding new ones with the aim of reducing the number of aircraft having to cross the runway.”
The airport’s Master Plan suggests that giving the runway a 325ft (100m) northern and 1,640ft (500m) southern end extension, would further increase capacity, although this is not expected to happen for at least two decades.
Near-term plans include a NZ$65million (US$51m) 335,210sq ft (33,000m2) revamp to the southern end of the central terminal. With gate lounges struggling to cope with the larger A320s now used by Air New Zealand on domestic truck routes, the redevelopment aims to achieve IATA’s C standard (good level of service and comfort; stable flows and an acceptable level of delays) for passenger processing and comfort during the busiest periods.
This redesign will incorporate moveable walls to give greater flexibility in the way the lounges can be used in the future. It will also address luggage belt and toilet shortages, as well as adding more food and beverage outlets, while an enlarged apron will add parking bays.
The airport’s almost downtown location has created its own problems. For the most part any traffic heading for the airport has to go through the city on what is the nation’s busiest urban highway outside Auckland. The congestion that this causes will – if not addressed – severely comprise the performance the city of Wellington’s whole supporting road network.
All the local government agencies concerned are working on plans to deal with this and, although there has been increased use of bus services to and from the airport, one long-term proposal envisages a light-rail system. On-airport, the redesign of landside roads to speed-up drop off/pick up traffic will take place shortly.
Moves have already been made to increase car parking but eventually parking spots will be split between two sites. A 269,000sq ft (25,000m2) off-airport site will cater for commercially important businesses that consume large amounts of space including rental, long-term, valet and some staff parking. Meanwhile, the existing on-airport parking area will be rebuilt to include a fully-functioning public transport interchange for any future bus-rail-air link.
Another area of local public concern is noise levels, and in May the airport took further steps to mitigate its noise footprint. With a curfew in place between 01:00-06:00hrs the use of aircraft APUs has already been phased out in favour of electrical power. Over the next two years noise assessment and treatment packages for up to 700 residential dwellings, schools and early childhood centres close to the airport will be identified with work being carried out over the next decade.
Wellington has just set its landing fees for the next five years and this has resulted in the abolition of its passenger departure tax. Over the set period, international charges will reduce by 39% overall.
Mr Howarth commented, “With the added benefits of its central city location, this pricing places Wellington’s charges in between Auckland and Christchurch and in the lower range of Australasian airports in terms of cost per passenger. [Doing] this will continue to ensure that [our] international travel is competitive and the reductions will help promote new routes and additional services to the capital.”