Hundreds of flights cancelled, flooded terminals – how can Auckland Airport bounce back?

Hundreds of flights cancelled, flooded terminals – how can Auckland Airport bounce back?


City:                Auckland, Auckland (Tamaki-makau-rau), New Zealand

Name:            Auckland International Airport

ICAO:             NZAA

IATA:              AKL

The misadventure of the 14-hour Dubai-Auckland Emirates A380 flight – EK448, which was forced to land at the same airport it had departed from several hours earlier due to severe flooding in Auckland, may have made some chuckle. But the people on the ground, who were dealing with the “biggest climate event” in the history of New Zealand, were not particularly amused.

Unprecedented – until now

An unprecedented downpour caused massive floods which sadly killed four people. Motorways and railways sustained significant damage, and Auckland airport – by far the largest and busiest in New Zealand, connecting to 26 domestic and 49 international destinations – was forced to close on the evening of Friday 27 January 2023. More than 2000 people were forced to sleep at Auckland Airport terminals overnight due to the extreme weather.

How long was the airport closed? How many flights were impacted?

The closure lasted until the afternoon of 28 January, with over 100 arrival flights listed as cancelled and 93 of arrivals scrapped through the day.

About 40 flights were diverted to Christchurch through Friday and Saturday, including international Air New Zealand flights. International flights did not resume until 29 January; the disruption of many flight schedules, however, kept thousands of passengers stranded for several more days. Auckland Airport Chief Executive, Carrie Hurihanganui, said that the airport “has never been tested in this way before”.

“What we’ve discovered is the flooding overnight has significantly impacted a number of critical components of our airport terminal infrastructure,” she added soon after the flood. “We know there will be lessons to learn out of such a unique event, and our priority today is passenger welfare and getting international travel back up and running as fast as possible.”

But was this event really as unique as we’d like to believe?

How much did it cost?

While it is true it was the most extreme weather event in New Zealand’s history, costing the economy upwards of $466 million, it may not stay a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. According to the Insurance Council of New Zealand, claims for weather-related damage added up to just over $335 million in 2022 – up from $305​ million the previous year, and $274 million in 2020.

Commenting on the data, Insurance Council Chief Executive Tim Grafton said that, “There is a clear pattern here of repeat bands of extreme rain saturating the ground making it more prone to slips, flooding and resultant infrastructure damage, including to roads”.

Similarly, extreme weather events, such as the deadly Pakistan floods in 2022, have been linked to climate change – not the kind of problem that can be solved in the short term. The hundreds of flights cancelled and thousands of passengers stranded have hurt the confidence of airlines and cargo operators – and it’s possible that the airport may indeed be tested again by a similar event.

But if the problem is here to stay, what can be done to mitigate the damage?

Contingencies for shut-down recovery

The typical model for emergency management is a four-step cycle encompassing preparedness/prevention, mitigation, response, and recovery. An airport achieves full recovery once it has regained normal safety and security standards and operations have resumed to the same level as before the incident.

Being prepared means having a comprehensive and realistic risks or hazards analysis, a plan to face those risks or hazards, and a team trained to carry out the plan. It’s important for the system to be robust enough to withstand a large hit, flexible enough to work around the damage that could not be avoided, and able to rely on some redundancy – duplicate or alternative system to activate to allow acceptable levels of airport function after the incident.

With flooding incidents in other airports, steps were taken to ensure flood control pumps were installed and operative, and electricity was available through generators. Shutting down airfield lighting in advance helped avoid short circuits, cutting down the recovery time. Securing loose items in high winds limited damage, as well as the amount of debris to deal with later. Evaluation of the best places to seek shelter, as well as a plan to relocate employees and passengers, was paramount to keeping people safe during the emergency.

An airport’s ability to resist damage and recover is often referred to as resiliency. Poor resiliency will not only increase the airport’s losses but also harm its reputation in the aviation industry as well as with passengers. All airports are different and may need different plans depending on various factors, such as their size and location. In the case of Auckland airport, what can it do to improve resiliency?

Future challenges

Only about seven metres above sea level, Auckland airport is (as most are) built on a flat stretch of land, which makes water drainage challenging. The impact of flooding on the airport may be determined by factors outside its control, although some may be mitigated through cooperation with the local government. The airport could, for example, work with other stakeholders such as the local council on shoreline management as well as the management of roads leading to and from the airport.

Work should be undertaken to improve the airport’s stormwater systems; good drainage and pumping systems will mitigate the effect of future floods and may go some way to keep passengers from having to wade through water inside the building.

Flood barriers – even temporary structures, to set up at the first flood warning – would also help keep water from entering the airport. Not everything can be protected from floodwater, but the more the facility can be kept from being entirely submerged, the quicker the airport will be able to resume its operations.

Elevation should be considered in the longer term to avoid a repeat of this year’s chaos. Elevated runways could be constructed to remain above floodwater, allowing planes to land safely – and perhaps avoid a 14-hour round trip such as the one endured by the passengers from Dubai. Buildings, too, could be elevated, although this process is more challenging when dealing with existing infrastructure. Other options, such as floating airports, sound quite futuristic and have yet to be implemented anywhere in the world but as technology advances, nothing seems impossible.

To deal efficiently with future floods, Auckland airport will need to keep looking for new solutions. In the case of extreme weather events, it’s likely that air travel will have to be halted either way, but the sooner the airport is fully operational again, the sooner they can clear any backlog and get passengers where they should be, minimising financial losses.

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