The rebirth of Tauranga Airport

Men with a plan. Ray Dumble, Simon Litten of Naylor Love and Phil Bond of Jasmax. Photo: Nikki South.

NZ8260 was on approach to Tauranga when a wee mite called Kristie burst into the terminal and made a beeline for the automatic doors to the observation area. She pulled up short, and disappointed.

“Closed indefinitely,” says the sign on the door, “due to terminal reconstruction. Sorry for any inconvenience.”

So for plane-spotters, and Kristie, no wailing jet-prop engines, no whiffs of avgas and no up-close and personal with the ATRs on the tarmac for the best part of a year. Because Ray Dumble is future proofing. He’s spending $12.7 million dollars to ensure the airport stays ahead of spectacular growth.

“A lot of people have moved off SH1 and onto SH2,” says Ray, the airport manager, “and they need to stay connected. It’s all about connectivity. We have all this growth in Tauranga and we need to stay connected to the rest of New Zealand.”

And the rest of the world. Because when Kristie is old enough to do her OE she’ll walk into Ray Dumble’s vision which, by then, will be a terminal that will be more than twice its current size. If she’s travelling with Air New Zealand she will check in all the way to London at a fully-automated state-of-the-art kiosk, tag her bags and drop them on a conveyor belt.

The airport will have all the trappings and a very big city feel.

There will probably be a bigger aircraft than the present ATRs to take Kristie to Auckland for her connecting flight. And she should have a choice of carriers. The budget airline Jet Star is apparently in a holding pattern over Tauranga Airport and due to start operating out of the Bay. “Yes, they’re coming, and we have set aside facilities for them,” says Ray. “And we are talking to others.”

And the current 14 flights a day of 50 seaters will become 70 seaters. “That’s not far away.”

Ray Dumble’s been working on the airport expansion plan for two years. “We started off drawing squares, story boarding. Now look where we are.” The story’s coming together - there’s a binder thick with drawings, stats and plans. And the virtual reality ‘fly through’ on Ray’s PC which will soon be shared with everyone on big screens in the terminal. “People want to know what we are doing and what the outcome will be. They are being very positive.”

The vision is no longer just a vision, or a virtual experience. Naylor Love Construction’s now on-site. And when The Weekend Sun dropped in, a digger had just arrived and was clawing away at footings for a new back-of-house, or operational area, where the terminal creeps eastwards.

It’s a game of numbers. “When I arrived 15 years ago we had 444 seats a day catering for 70,000 passengers a year,” says Ray. “Now we are doing 368,000 passengers – five and a bit times the number.” There were just 85 car parking spaces 15 years ago, now there are 680. That tells us something.

To cope with those numbers, and the projections, the terminal is more than doubling in size – from 1,700m2 to 3,8000m2. The cafe will double in size, with an international airport look and feel about it. The upstairs Koru Lounge will quadruple in size. Growing and reconfiguring – old walls down, new walls up, people moving, lots and lots of people coming and going.

“When I doubled the size of the old terminal in 2008, people said ‘what the hell have you done Dumble?’”

And when you wander into the terminal at 2.30pm on a weekday afternoon and it’s deserted apart from one cup of tea being sipped and a newspaper be picked over, that question appears to have some merit. What the hell is Dumble doing? The man shrugs it off.

“Leisure travelers would probably say that because they don’t see the airport at the three peak periods of the day,” he explains. “They travel off-peak because it’s cheaper, whereas we have to provide for when the terminal is at its busiest.”

To answer his doubters and critics, the manager points to the terminal’s ‘chocka block’ peak times – first thing in the morning, lunchtime and later in the afternoon. “So hell yeah, we need it,” says Ray. “But do we need it right now? No. We are providing for ten years down the track.”

The present open spaces at the front of terminal will be consumed by the new structure, which will stretch almost out to the tarmac. The walk to, or from, an aircraft will be reduced to 12 or 14 metres and there’ll be a 50-metre covered walkway across the front of the building.

“We can’t take the walkway too far out because obviously you have to have wing-tip clearance – but for the comfort and convenience of passengers, we will go as close as we can.”

Inside the sprawling new complex, the most obvious change will be the separation of arrivals and departures. Presently congested at one end of the terminal, the arrivals will be at the city end of the terminal, with check-in at the other. The business traveler, without a bag, won’t have to go through a busy terminal. “They will be looking for a taxi or a rental car so we have taken them out of the terminal.”

The big challenge is keeping the place operational without it unnecessarily impacting people. “Naylor’s have an extremely good construction programme, and they’ve thought about it long and hard,” he says.

“They are developing Nelson Airport, and that’s about six months ahead of us, so if there are any hiccups there, they won’t be happening here.”

In Ray’s ‘fly through’ there’s a room, a space. It’s there should the need arise one day, a sad indictment of the times.

“It’ll probably take just one more incident like Nelson and we will have to start screening.” In that infamous 2008 hijack incident, two pilots wrestled a knife-wielding female refugee to the floor in a terrifying mid-air ordeal. “It’ll be a sad day for the regions if we have to start body and bag screening. But that’s just a reality.”

It would also mean passengers checking in 20 minutes earlier. “Multiply that by 360,000 passengers a year.”

And while ratepayers are nickel and diming over a new library and art gallery, Ray Dumble won’t be calling on them. “We have a huge cash reserve and the projected commercial revenues will do the rest.”

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges aside from keeping the airport ticking over during the redevelopment.

Many people were unfamiliar with liquefaction until the Christchurch earthquake belched up grey silt all over the city – well, Tauranga Airport has its own silt issues. Enough to require 10 piles being driven 27-metres into the ground. “Under the earthquake codes, when you construct a new building, you have to bring an old building up to the new standard. No point having half a building standing up.”

All this development is personally very satisfying for the airport manager of 15 years. “But it’s fantastic for the city – we just need another operator.”

It’s an airport, and it’s also a major gateway. “We are the ‘in-and-out’ of Tauranga, so we are image conscious.” Everything’s nicely mown and all the edges are trimmed. He runs a tidy airport.

And in just 12 months and $12.7 million later, it will be a state-of-the-art airport.