Twinjet operators face bill for keeping airports open, or will have to find alternative

Transpacific twinjet services may have to fly longer routes if airlines cannot find a cost-effective way to keep Johnston Atoll's airport open after it ceases operations in 2004.

Carriers, principally Air New Zealand, Air Pacific, Continental Airlines, Polynesian Airlines and United, are assessing the impact of the US government's closure of the airport for extended-range twin-engine operations (ETOPS) on routes across the central and southern Pacific.

The atoll is 700nm (1,300km) southwest of Hawaii.

Johnston's demise is expected to add 20min to flying times, says International Air Transport Association assistant director for Asia-Pacific infrastructure Capt Neil Jonasson. "The issue is cost. A way needs to be found to pay to maintain the runway," he adds.

One suggestion is for airlines to pay part or all of the cost of maintaining air traffic control, emergency services and other facilities required for an alternate airport.

The services are currently provided by the US Air Force. It will leave in mid-2004 when the US Army has finished decontaminating the atoll after destroying chemical weapons stored there.

Johnston's closure will not only increase fuel costs and flying times, but could also leave airlines facing the cost of bringing alternatives up to scratch.

"We need to look at an alternate alternate," says Association of South Pacific Airlines secretary-general George Faktaufon. "One option is Christmas Island, but it would have to be redeveloped as it is currently restricted to 737 operations. We are going to approach the US government about continuing operations at Johnston Atoll," he adds.

Air New Zealand proposes to use Majuro in the Marshall Islands. "We will use Majuro when Johnston is no longer available. On occasion we already specify Majuro," says the airline.

Majuro or Christmas Island will probably still force airlines to fly longer ETOPS routes.

Source: Flight International