25 Feb 2019

Upgrade of troubled Vanuatu airport nears completion

2:47 pm on 25 February 2019

Three years after airlines pulled their services because of safety fears, a rebuild of the runway at Vanuatu's main international airport is nearly finished.

Air Vanuatu ATR 42 aircraft (now retired) at Bauerfield International Airport, Port Vila.

Air Vanuatu ATR 42 aircraft (now retired) at Bauerfield International Airport, Port Vila. Photo: Wikipedia

In January 2016, Air New Zealand abruptly stopped its flights to Port Vila over concerns about the state of the airport's runway, which was said to have been crumbling. Qantas followed soon after, cancelling its codeshare arrangements with Air Vanuatu.

That prompted the newly-elected government to sign on to a package with the World Bank for US$47.7 million to rehabilitate the runway, the contract for which was given to a Chinese company, China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation.

Jason Rakau, the chief executive of Airports Vanuatu Limited, the government-owned organisation which operates Vanuatu's airfields, said that after three years, the work was nearly done.

The bulk of it is on track to be completed by the end of March, he said, and the whole upgrade would be done by June.

A transfer of aid for Ambae Island between a RNZAF Boeing 757 and a RNZAF C130 at Bauerfield Airport, Port Vila, Vanuatu, involving 11 tonnes of relief supplies for Ambae Island. The C130 proceeded on to Luganville.

Emergency relief supplies bound for Ambae being unloaded in Port Vila at the Bauerfield International Airport. Photo: NZDF

This includes digging 10cm down into the 2.6km long runway to rebuild and replace the asphalt, widening the runway's shoulders and building new turning bays at each end of it, all while flights continued to come and go. Other works include strengthening the parking apron and installing new lights and navigation aids.

The work, Mr Rakau said, would allow Vanuatu's government to fulfil its massive plan to significantly boost tourism to the country by 2030, which includes direct flights from Asia and the United States.

"We've got limitations in accessing those markets only because we can't access them at the moment with our airport infrastructure," said Mr Rakau. "This particular upgrade will give us capabilities of wider body aircraft accessing Bauerfield Airport directly from the Pacific rim."

But if Vanuatu has set its sights on Asia and the Americas, Mr Rakau acknowledged that the Australian and New Zealand markets would continue to be the country's "bread and butter."

The Holiday Inn Resort Vanuatu

Vanuatu's economy is heavily reliant on Tourism. Photo: Supplied

But a hurdle to that could be that Air New Zealand had no plan to return to Vanuatu, despite its abrupt withdrawal on election night 2016 triggering the upgrade, said Mr Rakau.

"Originally the intention was that they would return," he said. "Unfortunately they have informed us that they won't be able to after we complete this runway and that's basically due to the shortage of aircraft that they can now allocate to this route at the moment."

Still, Mr Rakau said the progress so far was cause for celebration.

Virgin Australia had continued to operate its normal services, and plans are afoot for a large expansion of the national carrier, Air Vanuatu, which will likely include a new fleet. Other airlines had also shown an interest in Vanuatu, he added.

A public open day was being held at Bauerfield on Monday, and the World Bank package also involved plans to move towards upgrading the aged and well-used terminal.

Upgrades to runways on Santo and Tannna were also progressing well, Mr Rakau said.