Christchurch Airport is the biggest on New Zealand’s South Island, and is investing heavily in developing into a regional hub. Pat Brennan spoke with airport CEO Jim Boult on the sidelines of July’s Aviation Outlook Summit in Sydney.
Q: Can you provide a picture of the airport and its customers?
JB: Christchurch is the leading airport in the South Island of New Zealand. We cater for eight airlines, two of which are domestic carriers that also operate internationally, as well as six international airlines. The airport primarily caters for the leisure market, which represents 85 percent of visitors. We are also the premier destination for the South Island with 90 percent of international visitors arriving into Christchurch. We have two runways and can handle all aircraft types up to the A380.
Q: Is the airport a state owned entity or privately held and what are your staffing numbers?
JB: The airport is a private company and has two shareholders. The City of Christchurch has a 75 percent holding, with the New Zealand government holding the residual 25 percent. We employ 230 direct employees, although the airport campus has a total workforce of 5,500 and which makes the airport the largest employment centre in the South island. Our position as the gateway to the South Island means we play a significant role in the NZ$4.6 billion (US$3.92 billion) South Island tourist industry.
Q: How have passenger numbers developed in recent times and what was the impact of the first series of earthquakes in September of last year?
JB: [In] the year ending June 2010 we had an exceptional year and had seen record passenger numbers and profitability. Our passengers exceeded 6 million, comprising 4.5 million domestic and 1.5 million international, and while the September earthquake did have an impact, we saw it as a bump in the road and by November saw a recovery and were confident that we were back to where we had expected to be. However, February’s earthquake really did knock us about and we saw a 23 percent reduction in our international traffic numbers for March 2011, compared to the previous year. And of course we have experienced further earthquakes in June, which, along with the volcanic cloud disruptions, have further compromised the road to recovery.
Q: How did the airport cope when the 7.1 magnitude earthquake struck on 4 September and what lessons were learnt as a result?
JB: Surprisingly, the airport was closed for only nine hours. The first and most obvious effects were the loss of power, phones and Internet. While the airport did not experience major structural damage, the shakes were sufficient to render our Emergency Operational Centre (EOC) unusable. A temporary EOC was quickly established in the airport Fire Station. This experience was a sober reminder to ensure adequate levels of redundancy in vital infrastructure. Other lessons learnt were the need to have a process to constantly update key contacts and to ensure a comprehensive level of emergency training – and always expect the unexpected.
Right now, we have 75 percent of city hotel rooms out of action. We have also lost most of our convention facilities and our main sporting venue. All of these factors are limiting the city’s ability to host major events and accommodate the leisure and business market. This will obviously have a flow-on effect [on] the travel industry and us.
Q: Looking forward, what is the strategic view on how to build and promote the airport?
JB: We are investing heavily in turning the airport into a hub rather than simply a destination airport. We recognize the importance of retaining all of our international airline customers and are working with all of our operators to ensure we are seen as a viable and attractive hub. Looking forward, I can see that as Christchurch is re-built into a modern city, there will be opportunities to market both Christchurch and the South Island as being premier tourist destinations, served by a well-connected hub airport.
Q: Christchurch Airport has a long history of embracing green projects. Can you tell us about some of the projects you are engaged in?
JB: The airport has had a green initiatives program for over 10 years now. Christchurch Airport was the first airport in the southern hemisphere to qualify as carbon-neutral, which occurred in 2008. We produce all of our potable water on the airfield from an artesian bore. We also use a groundwater source to both heat and cool the airport building. We also have a stunning project that utilises sensors to cycle lights through the terminals and which provides a NZ$400,000 saving along with lower energy consumption. Another area where we are active is pursuing a policy of restricting the use of aircraft-installed auxiliary power units while an aircraft is sat at a gate. This is being introduced over the next three years.