By Suzanne Hansen
We have had some of the “most shocking weather” on record and the situation of Whitianga’s isolation has never been more dire and more evident. Not just for the access to our resort community for holiday goers, and by default, our hospitality industry, but also for supplies, freight, medical emergencies, resident access and much more. As Grant Bacon CEO of Barrier Air says, “The last couple of weeks has categorically proved that the need for a weather-proof runway at the Mercury Bay Aero Club has never been more important”.
Evan Wheeler, President of the Mercury Bay Aero Club, which owns and maintains the dual landing strips concurs. Evan cites the last 12 months as being exceptional in the almost 75-year history of the Club. Prior to 2021, the landing strips were closed, maybe an average of 3 to 4 days in any year. In 2022, as a result of the 95 consecutive days of summer drought in 2020, which took a grave toll on the health of the grass landscaping of the runways, the incessant rains of 2022 have decimated the patchy runways resulting in their closures for around 30 days in 2022 and so far, 5 days at the start of 2023.
Everyone agrees that the weather in the past several months in this area has indeed been exceptional. The question is, how long will this weather pattern last? Truth is, nobody really knows, and really the question is, in the absence of dependable roading, how can we weather-proof our air services so that we do not continue to risk utter isolation. With our growing population in the area, now is the time to do something constructive about the issue.
The good news is that we now have a viable and consistent air service to our community from the Auckland airport, which has been successful and well-supported by visitors and locals alike. What is different about the Barrier Air service is the regular schedule of flights, enabled by the carrier’s commitment to instrument flying (IFR) as opposed to visual flying (VFR). This, combined with Barrier’s investment in the larger 14-seater Cessna Grand Caravan fleet of utility aircraft, has been a game-changer for air services to our area. Grant Bacon adds that even though the company has had some difficulties with the closures of the runways, needing to invest in their Whiti City Taxi shuttle alternatives for around 8% of their flights over the last six months, Barrier Air is still incredibly happy with the strong performance and support for their Whitianga business, which continues to grow. He reports a 150% growth year on year from Dec-Jan FY 2022 and is totally optimistic about the future. Grant adds that what will cement the future of the Barrier operation, as well as other future entrants, is to have an all-year weatherproof landing strip.
Lynda Grant, Chair of the Mercury Bay Business Association, says that such a development will grow business year-round for Mercury Bay. Actually, this has already happened as Mercury Bay is one of the few areas in NZ moving ahead, and hopefully we can keep that momentum going. She says, such a scenario would mean that businesses and their staff and/or suppliers could fly in and out at will. More people could permanently reside here, working from home for their companies in other cities and countries. We might even have better freighting options for imports and exports to the Mercury Bay area, and of course, we would attract more tourists. “Whitianga could become more of a key tourist destination and commuting hub. These people spend money, ” adds Lynda, “ and tell others.”
Evan Wheeler and the Aero Club are on board 100%. They see an all-weather landing strip as a beneficial community asset and the club want to make it a reality. As the owners of the land, they are costing out a feasibility study to work out the best options. However, there are a couple of issues that need to be sorted through. Geologically speaking, the project is not a straightforward one. A major issue is the water table under the Aero Club Landing strips, which is only around one metre below the surface, and necessitates some major earthworks and engineering to stabilise a sealed runway. Such a project will require at least a metre depth of shingle under the runway which is 10 metres wide and a kilometre long. This means a lot of dirt needs to be removed and this triggers a more elaborate consent process with the Waikato Regional Council. The feasibility study will cost this out with all the options, but with a potential budget for the project of between 3 to 7 million dollars, depending on paving options taken, this is way above the means of the small, incorporated society.
Meanwhile the club has worked to improve the drainage for the two runways and is in the second year of a project to reseed the runways with grass. They have completed the sowing on one and will start the other in April. Grant Bacon from Barrier Air commends the club for doing such a good job, saying the rebounds from closures have been so much faster.
TCDC Councillor, John Grant, speaking personally, has said that he would support the sealing of the runway at the Aero Club. Obviously, Council has a lot of demands from a lot of areas, but he would like to see Council help to make this a reality. He says the problem is that the issue has been talked about in the past but did not grow legs. Now that the Aero Club has some consensus on the issue, perhaps it is time for the club and stakeholders like Barrier to formally present a case to the TCDC for assistance in making this happen. John adds that Great Barrier Island has two sealed runways for a population of just 800 people, while we still have this situation. Sealing the runway must happen for all sorts of reasons, not the least, the health and prevention of isolation for Mercury Bay residents.
Where to from here? Of course, funding such a major project is a big hurdle, although by definition, the project would be a dead sitter for the Provincial Growth Fund (PGF), who’s key remit is to, “ensure that people living all over New Zealand can reach their full potential by helping build a regional economy that is sustainable, inclusive and productive”. Grant Bacon says that some communications have been made by Barrier Air with the Provincial Growth Fund, who have responded with positive sentiment, although the fact that the airstrip is technically “privately owned” by the incorporated Aero Club might present some challenges.
Evan Wheeler says that the Aero Club has committed to driving such a project, but with their feasibility study alone costing $89K, the whole project is a funding nightmare for the 155-member club. He adds that the Aero Club would seal at least one runway tomorrow if they could.
John Grant suggests that the Aero Club and Barrier Air form a leadership committee of key stakeholders in the Mercury Bay community to drive this forward. The project makes sense on so many levels, commercially, socially, and for safety reasons.