Christchurch Airport keeps costs grounded

Last updated 05:00 13/04/2013

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The soon to be completed Christchurch International Airport's domestic terminal has been a "very complex" project but came in on budget despite unexpected delays and construction challenges.

Both the Canterbury earthquakes of 2010 and 2011 and deconstruction holdups around asbestos removal meant the expected mid-2012 deadline was missed.

But the airport has essentially met a $237 million forecast for the four-year project. During those construction years 40 million plus passengers and visitors passed through a busy worksite.

The financial size of the terminal build was always mammoth, largely funded through bank debt and a $75m bond issue, and does set a standard in proving Christchurch can take on the large difficult projects needed in the earthquake rebuild.

The public's response to the new terminal appears positive. The extension allows departing passengers to sit in a comfy sofa space past a final security check and possibly make a retail purchase or watch the air-side action before heading into flight mode.

The recently completed jet departures lounge, servicing Air New Zealand's and Jetstar's domestic jets, is like a mirror image of the triangular food court many Cantabrians and visitors will already have seen on a visit to the hub.

The upstairs lounge also acts as an arrival area for arriving domestic passengers before they walk through an exit walkway.

Geoff Eban was appointed general manager terminal development in October 2009 and has a story to tell, having overseen a highly technical build that has additional security requirements including the pullback of the road for drop-offs from the terminal frontage.

When he started construction was just under way with preparatory work on the foundations. At that point the design had settled down after significant alterations to initial plans dating from the mid-2000s.

When Jim Boult was appointed as new chief executive in 2009, replacing Rene Bakx, he said one of his priorities was delivering on the terminal build. Bakx resigned just before Christmas 2008, with the bombshell departure linked to the company's terminal upgrade. At that time, the price of the domestic upgrade had skyrocketed during a dragged out process.

In early 2009 the airport's No 1 customer threatened court action over the terminal plan but withdrew its application for a judicial review of the project at the last minute.

Boult in more recent times has focused on helping a tourism recovery after the Canterbury quakes, and, importantly, winning new services for the airport.

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In 2011/12 the airport won then lost a Kuala Lumpur-Christchurch route by AirAsia X, and has since been chasing further international services.

Boult was this week in China as part of a business delegation led by Prime Minister John Key.

The airport has often emphasised that to win a new airline, or additional flights into Christchurch, can take months if not years.

Speaking from China, Boult says he and Key had talked to top brass at China Southern Airlines, the world's third-largest airline, which remains the most likely airline to create a new link from China to Christchurch. The quake-hit city had been mentioned on several occasions on the business/political mission, during which Key met China's new Premier, Li Keqiang.

"We had some further good discussions with China Southern. I keep on saying it's not a matter of if we get a service, it's when. Every time I come over here I just become more and more sure of that."

The new domestic terminal would help encourage more Chinese tourists to visit Christchurch and the South Island, Boult said.

Eban said the terminal project, led by Hawkins Construction, had delivered on environmental and aesthetic elements to deliver a "state of the art" build. Users had also endorsed the airport, he adds.

Christchurch architect Roger Buck says the inside of the new domestic terminal feels well designed, though he has a few issues with the outside of the building, particularly the angular frontage which might not be seen as friendly by some Asian visitors.

"There's a very strong angle pointing towards the car park, and in Asian mythology, if you like, that's an aggressive shape, a sword pointing at you or something like that," Buck said. "[But] inside it functions very well.

It's just one huge space but it seems to be logical. Some airports you can get lost in."

Eban remembers he had to hit the ground running at the beginning to engage the airport community with the project, and also instigate a charter to guide those involved in the construction "to work together as a team, so we could all have a good outcome". At the peak there were 350 workers on site.

The size of the build reflects the high usage of the building by Cantabrians and visitors to the region. Eban says almost 6 million passengers a year plus another 5 million "meeters and greeters and farewellers", go through the hub in the west of Christchurch. So during the four-year build period there were up to 44 million people moving in and around "this building site".

"For us to have completed it on time and on budget without harming any of the public [is a good result] . . . and also airline operations continued unaffected during that whole four years as well," he says.

Part of the new design includes the introduction of three "swing gates" between the new domestic and existing international terminals. These gates can work on behalf of passengers alighting or departing on international flights or alternatively domestic flights.

This flexibility gives the airport a real advantage over rivals such as Auckland Airport, where there is a significant separation between domestic and international, he says. The gates mean an aircraft can switch from a domestic flight to trans-Tasman or vice-versa.

The earthquakes saw some changes in the terminal design build, including the introduction of more seismographs around airport land.

An extra 11 seismographs, installed as a result of the September 2010 quake, had given the ability to quickly judge the impact of a new quake on the airport buildings and the tarmac including a 3000-metre plus main runway, and a cross-wind runway of close to 2000m.

"Fortunately [the earthquakes] didn't have major impacts in terms of damage. But they slowed things up and caused a lot of review of how we were doing things and what we were doing, and inspection to make sure there was no damage," Eban says.

Airport technology is constantly changing, even during the period of the four-year build with the airport having to make some changes during that period, Eban says.

Air New Zealand's check-in processing kiosks were one addition, allowing, for example, the use of smartphones to show the ticket and get a boarding pass.

"By far the the single biggest issue with the building has been the need to stage it," Eban says.

One delay on the build was Air New Zealand's Koru lounge, which had been due to open in February, but that project ground to a halt given that the work was being done by a company tied to Mainzeal Property and Construction, which has gone into receivership.

The work for Air New Zealand is now being done by subcontractors who had been working for Mainzeal, with an opening date for the upstairs Koru lounge on April 27.

Before the CIAL build, Eban had not project managed a building of a comparable size.

Now he will leave CIAL role to work in a similar role for Wellington International Airport.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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