Don’t skimp on Vanuatu’s Airports
By Victor Craig
The current stalemate in Vanuatu over what do to with Bauerfield International Airport (BIA), Vanuatu’s international aviation gateway, is failing the safety and sustainability imperative inherent in every passenger airport and could see the Pacific island nation missing out on the opportunity to become a truly international tourism destination with the dramatic increases in tourism spending that would bring to the developing nation and its people.
The Government of Vanuatu and a consortium led by Vanuatu Trade Development (the Consortium) entered into an agreement earlier in 2013 to build a new international airport on a new site on the main island of Efate, and then operate the new airport before transferring it back to the Vanuatu people after a 50 year concession agreement.
The Consortium proposed an entirely new airport because the existing 2,660 metre runway at BIA cannot be extended in a manner that would be feasible for large aircraft operations, due to the hills to the north and south of the airport. Its approach from the northwest is also potentially hazardous, posing significant risk to existing residents living around the airport site, as well as to air passengers should an aircraft misjudge the awkward descent and the low altitude final turn to the runway under poor weather conditions.
In addition, BIA does not meet current ICAO safety provisions in terms of obstacles, such as hills, which are near the runway, or in respect of the airport buildings which, in an earlier era, were built far too close to the runway. Among a number of structural and financial inhibitors, a feasible long-term upgrade to BIA would have to level the surrounding hills, with serious implications to nearby communities and the local environment. One example would be a requirement to demolish all of the existing airport buildings and re-build them at greater distance from the runway. This would also mean demolition of part of the residential and industrial community that presently occupies these lands just west of the airport.
The Consortium, which under the agreement is also required to repair the failing runway at BIA, conducted both coring and testing of the runway pavement, and then prepared detailed design, costing and tender documents for an engineering solution to repair the structure of the runway pavement, and allow the runway to be used safely by passenger jet aircraft. Following recent political instability in Vanuatu the Consortium’s proposal has hit a stalemate resulting in Consortium partners not having access to the Bauerfield Airport site, preventing the commencement of proposed repairs.
As the project awarded to the Consortium continues to be politicised, the Vanuatu Government is now considering an alternative option – resurfacing the 2,660 metre Bauerfield runway via a ‘cosmetic’ fix – the application of an asphalt overlay over the existing failed runway pavements.
This cosmetic fix will not address the cause of failure in the runway pavement, and will not prevent it from continuing to fail, calling into question the wisdom of spending money on an asphalt overlay. The structural issues with the runway can only be addressed by significant works which include adding drainage to lower the water table underneath the runway, and removing weak, saturated and unsuitable silty-clay material beneath a large part of the northern section of the runway. The engineering design prepared for the BIA runway proposes to rebuild large parts of the runway and restore it for safe use by medium jet aircraft.
Because of a limitation on aircraft climb performance due to the terrain around BIA, as well as the weak runway pavement and present limited runway length, the current runway cannot support operations by modern wide body long haul aircraft, such as the Airbus 330, Boeing 777 and Boeing 787 Dreamliner. Nor does the present runway environment meet international safety standards required for operations by these larger aircraft. This means that lucrative overseas tourism markets such as Japan, China and the United States cannot be accessed directly by long haul aircraft, forcing tourists from these markets to travel to Vanuatu via Australia, New Zealand or Fiji. This is a significant barrier for those tourists as some transit countries – Australia for example, require transit visas before flying on to Vanuatu.
As tourism represents over 20% of Vanuatu’s GDP, it is a significant economic driver for the people of Vanuatu. It would seem logical that every effort be made by the Government, business and vested interests in Vanuatu to protect and grow this vital source of revenue for the country. The Vanuatu Government should be doing everything it can to protect existing air traffic and also attract greater numbers of passengers who arrive by air to Vanuatu. A new, unrestricted, airport is key to accessing a longer-haul air travel market, and therefore key to growing the economy.
Tourists who arrive in Vanuatu by air stay far longer and spend more money that those who arrive on the cruise ships. The Vanuatu Strategic Tourism Action Plan estimates that Air Passengers spend 11.6 billion Vatu per annum (US$ 1.2 Billion) compared to cruise passengers who spend only 4.5 billion Vatu (US$ 45.6 Million) per year. With more time on the ground, tourists arriving by air are more likely to explore the Vanuatu archipelago and go ‘island hopping’ to experience the country’s unique tourism offerings such as volcano trekking.
The continued actions of Airports Vanuatu Limited (AVL) in giving contrary advice to Government as to the measures required to repair the runway, and the much higher cost of that advice, is preventing the commencement of works by Consortium partners, and highlight the complexities of the current impasse.
As part of its review of BIA, the Consortium engaged a Port Vila based accounting firm to conduct an independent review of Airports Vanuatu Limited (AVL), the owner and operator of Bauerfield International Airport. This has raised many serious financial and accounting irregularities and failures in corporate governance, which has left AVL depleted in its capability to run the airport. In the present climate it is unlikely that any financier would lend money to AVL to support any runway works should AVL wish to fund and purchase these works independently.
The Consortium remains committed to the new airport project and to the opportunity the project offers the people of Vanuatu, despite the current stalemate highlighting the breadth and depth of issues at BIA, not only in terms of the need for urgent repairs, but also for a longer-term view of aviation planning by AVL and the Vanuatu Government. The optimist in me prefers to focus on the opportunity this current impasse offers Vanuatu to transform the way in which it operates and develops its airports, so as to redefine the nation’s travel and tourism capacity and access the many economic benefits that will bring.
The writer is a professional airport planner and engineer and chairman of Leading Edge Aviation Planning Professionals of Australia , a global aviation planning and management consultancy, and aligned within the Consortium which has won the right to build, manage and transfer a new international airport in Vanuatu and to also conduct repair works at BIA.