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Pilots Snub Ashburton Airport After Fee Hike

Pilots are opting for paddocks over Ashburton Airport after the council made it one of the "most expensive small provincial airfields" to train and fly at, users say.

Ashburton District Council, which owns the recreational, grass-runway airport, hiked and changed the fees for pilots in a bid to increase profits. It was part of a 30-year plan to reduce the burden on ratepayers having to subsidise the airfield.

However, the council has been told it has had the opposite effect, with a drop in planes using the airport since the fees were introduced at the start of the 2023/24 financial year.

Several submitters to the long-term plan said the airport lost 1700 aircraft movements in the last year because of the higher fees and reputational damage.

Pilot Michael Oakley said bad management decisions and poor communication from the council have caused the marked reduction in landings, and something needs to change before it’s too late.

“The decisions that are being made by this council are being talked about all over New Zealand and it is having a rippling effect across airfield users.”

Another submitter, Michael Thomas, described a “toxic situation” developing at the airport and suggested the management of the airfield be taken over by a user-group committee – like the boards that run some of the district’s halls and reserves.

“There are empty hangers in Ashburton right now because people are going.”

Pilots are landing in private strips in paddocks instead, he said.

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And submitter Neville Bailey said that last year the fees were raised significantly, the bulk annual landing fee was abolished, and a touch-and-go fee was introduced.

The changes made Ashburton "one of the most expensive small provincial airfields to train and fly at in New Zealand”.

The result has been a significant drop off in landings and the fee structure needs to be reassessed, he said.

Mid Canterbury Aero Club Graham Closey said the council inadvertently decreased the revenue from aircraft and is concerned the proposed changes will make things worse.

“It needs to be fair for everybody and reasonable because there is only a certain price point you can go to before people start turning their nose up.”

Club secretary and treasurer David Wright argued the community benefit from the airfield makes it “reasonable to ask the community to contribute”.

Ashburton Aviation Museum’s Owen Moore doesn’t want the museum that is based at the airport to be seen as a cash cow.

The museum is concerned that the council’s pursuit of making the airport operate at no cost to the ratepayers “could see the museum as a cash cow and up the rent and rates to levels that make the museum unsustainable”.

Their storage hangar was facing a rental increase of 75%, he said.

As one of the premier tourist attractions in the district and in recognition of what they do for the community, Moore wants acceptable rates locked into the long-term plan to provide certainty.

Business support group manager Leanne Macdonald said the council “don’t feel it is a toxic environment”.

“Our aim has always been to balance the needs of a small user group against the amount of general rates required to top up and operate the airport.

“We all want a vibrant airport that can grow in an orderly way, without relying too much on ratepayers.”
The council will address the claims made in the hearings and any changes to the fee structure during its long-term plan deliberations next week.

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