Friday, March 24, 2006

Editorial: Airport wrong to ignore rail

Auckland Airport this week produced a vision of its probable development over the next 20 years. The airport company envisages new terminals, another runway, hotels, carparks and more commercial property. Its priorities do not include the item its customers might most desire - a railway to the airport.

The company expresses sympathy often for air travellers who face Auckland's congestion and lends its voice to those urging the authorities to do something about it. But the airport shows no interest in a rail solution, though passenger rail is highly favoured at the moment by Auckland's transport authorities and it would not seem to take much to put a loop from the southern line through Manukau City Centre and the airport terminals. Manukau Mayor Barry Curtis is pressing for a spur line to his city centre. He would certainly welcome the airport to his plans.

It is not hard to guess the reason for the company's reticence on the subject of rail. It lies undoubtedly in the earnings of that commercial property and carparking. Of the airport's $282 million revenue last year, $152 million came from non-aeronautical sources such as retail shops, property rentals and parking charges. International airports these days are shopping centres.

It stands to reason the owners of a shopping centre would not like the idea of a train-to-plane service that might severely reduce the numbers using the airport to meet or farewell family and friends. The fear is probably well-founded. Many people would be content to make their farewells at, say, the Britomart rail terminal rather than drive all the way to Mangere.

It is a lucky business that can afford to ignore its customers' convenience in this way. Auckland International Airport can afford to do so because it has no competitors. Its 20-year priorities might look rather different if the Government had given the go-ahead to Infratil to develop a commercial airport at Whenuapai. The greater ease of driving to Whenuapai from northern and western suburbs made the proposal extremely attractive.

Auckland International might have been forced to provide a rail link to offer northern and western residents a competitive journey time. But the airport argued vehemently against Infratil's case and the present Government postponed its plans to relinquish the Air Force base.

Having seen off that threat, the airport company has been able to contemplate an additional runway and terminals sufficient to handle all the projected international air traffic to Auckland to 2025. It is New Zealand's main tourist gateway and intends to remain so. Access apart, its attention to the travelling public cannot be faulted. Many of the services at the international terminal - bar the oppressive baggage hall and slowness of agricultural checks - are first class and the shopping centre it has become does New Zealand proud.

The airport is a collection of licensed retail, accommodation, cargo and road passenger interests that collectively argue against a rail link. If a rail service is to be provided it will have to be done entirely by a public body, though surely the airport company could not oppose such a convenience outright.

Aviation remains an industry far too hidebound by state-favoured services. It is bad enough that at international airports it commonly takes two hours to check in for a flight; it is worse that from many parts of Auckland at certain times of the day it can also take two hours to reach the airport. Sooner or later something must be done to reduce that wasted time. The airport company's 20-year vision suggests it will not be moving to make that happen soon.

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