Letter From Mayor Gurunathan, Kapiti Coast District Council To Prime Minister
8 December 2020
Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern
Private Bag 18041
Dear Prime Minister,
I write this open letter to your Office as a last plea for your Government to make a clear and comprehensive decision on the current and future role of the Paraparaumu Airport as a strategic operations asset for the Wellington Region during a major civil emergency. I had earlier on 8 September written to five of your Ministers and am concerned to note potential issues in their responses that could undermine a speedy response in the event of a major emergency.
But before I do that, allow me to refer to an incident involving former Prime Minister Helen Clark and the saving grace of Paraparaumu Airport. On 13 April 2005 the twin-engine Piper Aztec which had taken off from Wellington Airport, with the Prime Minister and four others on board, struck turbulence at 8000ft and its door was blown open. While two police officers grappled with the door the plane avoided being ditched into the sea and landed safely at Paraparaumu Airport. A bruised and shocked Helen Clark later told the media she had feared for her life. I recall this incident to point out that the Paraparaumu Airport maintains a day-to-day emergency alternative for fixed-wing planes flying across the turbulent Cook Strait and as an alternative airport. In particular, for the Emergency Aeromedical Retrieval Service operating out of Wellington Hospital's Intensive Care Unit, when the runways at Wellington Airport are not available. In my 8 September, 2020 letter to the five Ministers I specifically mentioned the appeal, made by senior medical practitioners leading the Wellington Hospital ICU, warning that the closure of the Paraparaumu Airport will have "potential adverse consequences for patients." The service includes the Starship Air Ambulance PICU service that retrieve critically ill children. It also serves Organ Donation NZ and the national ECM0 retrieval service based in Auckland City Hospital. A significant point highlighted by the experts was that in medical emergencies transport time was critical in saving lives.
I was concerned that despite my specific mention of the above alerts concerning those emergency medical services, the Office of the then Health Minister, the Hon. Chris Hipkins, dated 9 September, did not refer to them at all but chose to only say "As the matters you have raised primarily relate to the responsibilities of the Minister of Transport your email has been sent to Hon Phil Twyford for consideration." Until today, we have had no response on the future status of those ICU-linked aeromedical emergency services.
I refer now to the Minister of Transport's response dated 1st October 2020 in relation to the value of the Airport as a civil emergency asset. The Minister noted that "officials in the National Emergency Management Agency" had advised that while the Paraparaumu Airport would be a useful asset to have in a Wellington earthquake it was not "essential for a response". He further noted that the Wellington Earthquake National Initial Response Plan (WENIRP) does not rely on Kāpiti airport being available "because it may be affected" by a Wellington fault earthquake and is within a tsunami inundation zone. The Transport Minister's response also reflects the Civil Defence Minister's 1st October response to my 8 September letter. The Civil Defence Minister stated that WENIRP did not rely on Paraparaumu Airport being available because "it may too be affected" by a Wellington fault earthquake and was within a tsunami inundation zone.
Prime Minister, while I understand the position adopted by both Ministers that position depends on the assumption that Paraparaumu Airport "may" be affected. The strategic counterfactual question still needs to be raised: What if Paraparaumu Airport is not affected and response time was critical. In his 5 October 2020 response the Minister of Defence noted that the Paraparaumu Airport is capable of operations involving the C130 Hercules and the KA350 King Air fixed-wing aircraft. "The airfield could potentially be used by NZDF fixed-wing aircraft if Wellington Airport was unusable. In that case, transporting personnel and/or supplies into or out of Kāpiti would save approximately one hour by road from Ohakea," noted the Minister.
Prime Minister, my 8 September 2020 letter to the five Ministers is not the first time the strategic civil emergency significance of Paraparaumu Airport has been raised. On 17 April 2018 the eight mayors of the Wellington Region wrote to the then Minister of Civil Defence and Minister of Transport on this same matter noting that while the Airport is privately owned it was still a strategic regional asset and its continuing functionality in civil emergency preparedness should be protected. More recently, on 3 September 2020, the Chair of Civil Defence and Emergency Management Group for the Wellington Region, Mayor Anita Baker, wrote to the Minister of Civil Defence pointing out the Airport 's vital role in the region's continuity during an emergency which she noted is acknowledged within the Wellington Earthquake National Initial Response Plan.
Prime Minister, there does not seem to be a clear and comprehensive direction on the role of Paraparaumu Airport in the context of a regional emergency. Although this Airport has historical and economic links to our local communities, my letter to your Office is not about any parochial Kāpiti Coast interest. It is about the safety and resilience of those in the Wellington City and region and the fact that it's the seat of the Government and its enabling administrative systems. I don't think it's fair for the private owners of the Airport to be responsible for the region's resilience. As the Mayor of the Kāpiti District my office and my council can only raise the potential importance of this Airport in the event of a major Wellington earthquake. The responsibility of ultimately recognising that role, or clearly discounting that role, rests with you and your Government and not with my council nor the private Airport owners. Thank you for taking the time to consider this matter and I look forward to a definitive response.
K. Gurunathan JP, MA