Air New Zealand hopes of flying domestic services out of Whenuapai Air Force base have been shot down by Defence Minister Ron Mark as "half-baked" who says the plan would face enormous opposition from residents.
The airline has done modelling work and says some routes would be viable from a commercial airfield running with the military operation. It would help save passengers money as they face the prospect of higher charges at Auckland Airport.
Air New Zealand chief executive Christopher Luxon said his customers had made it "loud and clear that the transport infrastructure to get to and from Auckland airport was "suboptimal", especially for the large number living north of the Harbour Bridge or in West Auckland.
"Once customers get to Auckland Airport their experience there is well below the standard they expect for the main entry point into our nation's largest city, said Luxon whose airline has a sometimes fractious relationship over pricing with the airport at Mangere.
Mark said the feasibility work done for Whenuapai flights by the airline was news to him.
"It is interesting that they're now discussing this publicly through the media before formally discussing it with Defence or I."
A review of the Defence estate was under way and while Air New Zealand was welcome to offer input, "at first glance their proposition is half-baked".
He said Luxon's "musings" needed an injection of reality.
The minister, a New Zealand First MP, said there were barriers to operate any commercial airline operating out of Whenuapai next to sensitive military operations.
These included security issues, dated infrastructure, Civil Aviation Authority, security requirements, passenger facilities, road transport and car parking space.
But the biggest problem would be the number of houses and people who live in the area.
The National government in 2008 ruled out turning Whenuapai into a commercial airport, and since then tens of thousands of people have moved into the area, Mark said.
"It's one thing moving into the flight path of a military airbase that is home to only 13 aircraft, it's a whole other thing when a commercial carrier moves in next door," Mark said.
Luxon wants the airline to take a formal proposal to the Government but in a sign of even more bad blood, Mark took a swipe at it for shutting down the Masterton to Auckland service and said there had to be a level of confidence between parties.
"Given the manner in which this conversation has been broached and what I've witnessed in the Wairarapa in the past, Air New Zealand has a way to go."
Luxon said earlier today that modelling work at Whenuapai had shown several services a day to both Wellington and Christchurch could be commercially viable and the airline is in the final stages of assessing whether it could also make flights to Queenstown, Napier, Nelson and Palmerston North stack up as well.
The base was seriously considered as a second commercial airport 17 years ago - when it was rejected - but Luxon says the time was right to have another look at it.
An Auckland Airport spokesperson says developing a second airport would lead to the costly duplication of assets at a time when infrastructure development was under pressure. The airport was working hard to deliver a "great experience" for passengers and it airline customers.
Luxon, who leaves Air New Zealand on September 25, says that once the airline had a "fully formed view" on the merits of Whenuapai, it would want to engage in a conversation with the Government, as the owner of the airfield and its assets.
Air New Zealand has had an ongoing issue with Auckland Airport charges and he says current estimates showed that airport operating costs at Whenuapai would be lower than at the existing facility.
"Therefore, moving some of Air New Zealand's flying there could also be a significant step in helping keep down the cost of air travel for hundreds of thousands of Kiwis. The bottom line is that over the next five years all airlines operating into and around New Zealand, especially those with Auckland Airport in their network, are going to come under significant pressure from a rapid escalation in airport charges," he says.
Sir John Key - who is now an Air New Zealand board member - in 2002 opposed the development of Whenuapai as a second airport when he was MP for Helensville.
Luxon may go into politics as a National MP himself and says New Zealand needed to rise to the challenge of building necessary infrastructure.
"Part of that national challenge is to think about how we can deliver the best airport infrastructure, in the right place, for the benefit of all New Zealanders."
The body representing all airlines, the Board of Airline Representatives, says any move to use Whenuapai airbase for commercial air services in Auckland would create airport capacity and competition, and airlines would welcome both.
Executive director Justin Tighe-Umbers said the board was increasingly concerned at the emerging cost of infrastructure investment across the entire aviation sector over the next decade, which ultimately ends up on air travellers' tickets.
"So it makes total sense to look at our existing infrastructure assets, and ask can we use them in a way that will better benefit New Zealanders. Whenuapai air base is a great example of this. It could be a win for the Air Force from a shared cost perspective too."
Peak-time congestion and costs were increasing at Auckland Airport, so a second airport for Auckland should be explored if there is a ready-made opportunity like Whenuapai.
"I think it would benefit north Auckland residents and provide a great opportunity to grow regional, domestic and in particular low-cost services."
The Auckland Airport spokesperson said airlines had reconfirmed in writing a desire for it to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in new aeronautical infrastructure.
"We welcome any discussions about how nationally significant infrastructure can be delivered in the most cost-efficient way, for the benefit of all New Zealanders."
The airport earlier this year backed down on part of its aeronautical charging for airlines and says it ranks mid-way through a group of 26 peer international airports for international charges. It was also working with other agencies to build new roads and mass transit projects to ease congestion around the airport.
Margaret Miles, who chairs the Upper Harbour Local Board which covers Whenuapai, said people were saying "goodness gracious me, do we have to go down that path again".
She was extremely concerned a commercial airport was being looked at again with more homes in close proximity with the Hobsonville Pt development and Whenuapai starting, having a greater impact on more people.
She said Air New Zealand was concerned about roading to Auckland Airport but doubted the roading to Whenuapai would cope with airport traffic.
"A bit of a cynic in me wonders if this is just a way of getting Auckland Airport to reduce their landing charges," Miles said.
• Located 23km northwest of Auckland, Whenuapai is 1500ha in area, largely rural and home to the Whenuapai Airbase, which was established in 1937 and covers 300ha.
• Auckland Council has big plans for between 8100 and 10,700 new homes and 300h of business land at Whenuapai.
• Development has started for up to 1800 houses between now and 2021, followed by a second bigger stage from 2021 onwards.