Jets leaving Queenstown Airport last Thursday had to cut passenger capacity because street lights beyond the runway were hazardous.
Airport boss Scott Paterson (right) says Boeing 737s and Airbus A320s had to take off with six to 10 empty seats – it’s not known whether any passengers were left behind.
Paterson says an airport “survey of obstacles” suddenly discovered that six lighting towers on the state highway between the runway and Lake Wakatipu were higher than they should be.
The excess height was 2.6 metres on at least one lighting pole, Mountain Scene has established.
“As soon as we knew, our first obligation was to the travelling public – basically the airlines,” Paterson says.
With the lights too tall, airlines were forced to change flight procedures and reduce takeoff and landing weights, he explains.
“So we blew the whistle [to airlines] and started talking to [state highway operator] New Zealand Transport Agency.”
Paterson says the big worry was whether aircraft loadings would be restored to full capacity in time for last weekend’s peak departures at the end of the New Zealand and Australian school holidays.
“We were concerned people would have to be offloaded,” he says.
NZTA pulled out all the stops, regional boss John Jarvis says: “It had become a major problem for the airport.”
A contractor removed the light poles during Thursday and airlines resumed normal passenger loadings next morning.
“The height problem was a big surprise,” Jarvis admits.
“We acknowledge there was a mistake – how and why is yet to be resolved.”
Jarvis believes there was either a misunderstanding when the lights were installed in 2006 or there’s been a subsequent change in lighting restrictions around airports.
“Some discussion is still to take place” over the estimated $30,000 to remove and replace the lights, he says.