By JOHN KEY
Living close to an airport sounds like a good idea - unless you are one of the unfortunate homeowners on the flight path, or the project ends up being a financial lemon, in which case it could leave a sour taste in ratepayers' mouths.
So the plan to convert Whenuapai into a commercial airport promoted by local mayors Bob Harvey, John Law and George Wood needs closer examination.
Perhaps Whenuapai Airbase can - and will - be converted into Auckland's second airport, but it is important that the ratepayers of Waitakere, Rodney and the North Shore question the potential price.
First, the Whenuapai runway is built of hexagonal concrete blocks designed specifically to stand up to bombing. This is ideal for military purposes but would provide a bumpy landing for ordinary planes.
It is a high-maintenance surface, so the main runway is closed annually for 21 continuous days of routine maintenance to ensure it remains operational, unlike Whenuapai's other two runways, which are - to all intents and purposes - now closed.
Whenuapai runway is a worn-out cement slab that will cost about $30 million to patch, but a new runway is likely to cost $70 million, the same amount that Auckland Airport intends to spend on its second runway, due to be completed in 2006.
And it is not just the runway that needs upgrading. Don't forget to factor in the other requirements for a modern, commercial airport - efficient terminals, fuel storage, car parks and shops.
Although the runway is worn out, it remains neatly positioned on nearly 280ha of prime West Auckland land. This land is possibly worth $90 million, although by 2008, when the Air Force finally departs, it is bound to be worth substantially more.
Of course, the Government could give the land to the councils, but that is unlikely when even Government departments such as Housing New Zealand are required to buy land at market rates.
Leasing at mates' rates is an option, but if the Government wants to be that generous, or is prepared to take such a strategic view to keep its military options open, it would be better just to keep the Air Force at Whenuapai.
The prospective return on the local mayors' investment plan (with its potential $250 million-plus price tag) must be examined because ratepayers could be led neatly into this doomed venture courtesy of the new local government legislation and its bestowed powers of general competence.
A quick look at Auckland Airport's 2002 accounts shows that in 2001 it had gross income of $201 million.
A total of $54 million of this was generated by 71,000 plane landings and the balance from parking and terminal and commercial property fees from its shopping facilities.
That is a tidy sum and one that has rewarded stockholders handsomely, but can it be repeated at Whenuapai?
Unlikely. Mangere, nearly five times bigger with its 1500ha, was purpose-built as a modern commercial airport and has plenty of room for expansion.
Contrast this with Whenuapai's space - size will always be a limiting factor. It certainly will not be able to handle jumbos, or (without a major upgrade) anything much larger than a 737.
These space constraints will dictate smaller airlines and charter flights, resulting in lower landing fees and fewer passengers for its shops. That spells out a greatly reduced income.
Add to this Whenuapai's increasingly urban demographics, which make noise restrictions likely. That means reduced operating hours, and probably no night flights. That reduces the airport's revenue yet again because even if planes land daily every 20 minutes during daylight hours, the airport could still achieve only a fifth of the 2001 landing capacity of its South Auckland sister.
Freight is the next big issue, and presumably one of the key reasons behind the mayors' grand plan. It is a non-starter even if freight agents could be convinced to replicate their Mangere infrastructure.
Most freight is transported in dedicated freight planes or the holds of larger 747 and 767 jets, generally at night, long after Whenuapai's curfew will have kicked in.
Maintenance is another no-brainer. Air New Zealand currently provides this service to many international carriers at Mangere, and it would not make commercial sense to duplicate its engineering facilities at Whenupai. So what would happen at Whenuapai when a plane had a mechanical problem?
Which leads me back to where the mayors started their plan to create jobs and fill the $60 million hole left when the Air Force departs. Whenuapai, as a commercial airport, would create some jobs but not many unless it can challenge Auckland Airport head on and that is unlikely.
Auckland may need a second airport - one day. But many major international cities, with much larger populations than Auckland will have in 50 years, operate successfully with only one airport - including Los Angeles, Sydney and Tokyo.
The land at Whenuapai certainly has a strategic value, but it is not right that local ratepayers should be left to solve the Government's problem - replicating jobs lost through its ill-conceived plan to dismantle our Air Force.
Whenuapai is worth preserving but only as a military airfield, not some second-rate, loss-making commercial folly destined to bleed dry local ratepayers.
Travelling to and from the airport can be slow and expensive in Auckland. So here's a novel idea: let's fix the roads before we set about building a white elephant out West.
* John Key is the National MP for Helensville.
By JOHN KEY