A damaged fuel pipe that services Auckland International (AKL) burst last week, causing the cancellation of hundreds of flights into and out of New Zealand’s largest airport. An investigation found that a digger driver removing swamp kauri from areas near the pipe caused damage to the pipe months ago. At the time of the initial damage, the pipe did not burst but instead became a weak link in a system that requires perfection. The pipe burst when the fuel pressure in the pipe was increased last week, becoming too much for the pipe to handle.

Though the pipeline is clearly marked with warning signs, sources report that signs near the scene of the initial damage were overgrown and hard to see clearly.  Refining NZ Spokesman Greg McNeill said that the pipeline burst as a result of “external damage in a peat swamp”, and though he couldn’t confirm the time of damage, he did say that teams had found kauri near the pipe.

McNeill said that a pressure drop was first detected on Thursday, September 14. The leak was soon spotted on farmland in Ruakaka, and the pipeline was shut down in order for the site to be excavated.

The burst had instant and lasting effects on flight operations at AKL. AKL has lost as much as 70% of its fuel supply, and flights were canceled within hours of the rupture. Close to 30 flights were canceled over the weekend after the rupture.

A statement released on Auckland Airport’s website said that fuel companies are rationing the amount of fuel that they supply to airlines.

“Airlines operating at Auckland Airport have had their usual fuel allocations reduced,” Mobil Oil New Zealand Limited spokesperson Andrew McNaught said. McNaught said that Mobil recommends that planes carry enough fuel to allow return flights out of Auckland without refueling there, and stopping at other airports outside of Auckland.

Most flights out of AKL, including the Emirates flight to Dubai, have stopped in Christchurch for refueling. Whether or not a flight stops in Christchurch is up to individual airlines.

“Many domestic and trans-Tasman flights are consolidating passenger numbers, and some long-haul services are making extra stopovers to refuel outside of Auckland,” said House of Travel Commercial Director Brent Thomas.

“The pipeline is the only source of jet fuel for Auckland Airport, so precautions have been taken to restrict the amount of fuel being used,” said Minister of Energy and Resources Judith Collins. “Airlines have options to manage their operations and will be looking to minimize any inconvenience for travelers. They will keep their customers informed of any changes to flight schedules, as required.”

Collins said that fuel stored for situations like this is being supplied to the airport.

While the pipeline is out of use, trucks like this one are being used to deliver extra jet fuel to AKL.
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

“There are fuel stocks on hand in Auckland and additional stocks of petrol and diesel are being trucked in directly from the refinery, and from the terminal in Mt. Maunganui. The fuel companies are confident that supply of these fuels will be maintained and it is unlikely that motorists will be inconvenienced,” Collins said.

“I’ve been instructed ministers to work closely with the companies to offer all assistance that government can,” said New Zealand Prime Minister Bill English. “It’s the sort of problem that will require government agencies and oil companies to work together.”

It could take 10 to 14 days to restore the fuel supply, which means that, at the earliest, a regular fuel supply will be available at the airport on Sunday, September 24.

“The key thing here is safe operations,” said McNeil. “The really positive thing here is we have made great progress [in fixing the pipe].”

“We will have additional staff in the terminals supporting passengers and addressing any questions or concerns may have,” AKL CEO Adrian Littlewood said. “We strongly recommend that any passengers traveling over the coming days plan ahead and check with their airline for the latest information.”

“We are very focused on managing any impacts of the supply of jet fuel to the airport as a result of this issue,” McNaught said. “Industry is working to minimize any potential impacts on other petroleum fuels by putting alternative supply arrangement in place. This includes transporting more fuel from refinery via road-tankers, diverting additional loads to Auckland where possible, and working with customers to carefully manage their supply requirements.”

Air New Zealand says that it will refund all fares for flights canceled because of the pipeline cut. However, the airline said that customers will need to contact their insurer for assistance “with any accommodation or out of pocket expenses” since the situation is out of Air New Zealand’s control.

“Travel insurance will typically cover a reasonable cost of disruption from an event such as the fuel problem but every case is different,” Thomas said. “It’s best if travelers are familiar with their insurance policy and check with their travel agent if they have any questions.”

“We can’t stress enough that travelers need to purchase their travel insurance when they book and pay for their tickets and not just before they are about to travel if they want to enjoy cancellation cover,” said Tim Grafton, CEO of the Insurance Council of New Zealand. “Likewise, if you book a trip and buy insurance after events like a fuel shortage have been publicized, you will not have cover for those events.”

Air New Zealand expects that operations out of Auckland should return to normal this weekend.
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons

Services at AKL are starting to return to normal. Though 110 flights were canceled on the 20th, of which 40 were Air New Zealand services, airlines hope that they won’t have to cancel many more flights, if any, this weekend. Domestic flights are expected to continue as usual on Thursday.

Fuel rationing has also been partially eased, according to a spokesperson for New Zealand’s oil industry. Airline fuel allocations rose from 30% to 50% at midnight on Friday, September 22.

All restrictions on civil servants have also been lifted. The freeze that airlines put on ticket sales has also been lifted, and seats can now be purchased on most airlines operating in New Zealand. Air New Zealand froze ticket sales soon after the pipe burst so ease pressure on the airline, making room for some passengers on flights that were canceled early to make it to their destination.

Infrastructure New Zealand is calling for action to avert crises like this in the future. Stephen Selwood, CEO of the organization, has called on New Zealand’s government to create a new infrastructure commission.

“We need appropriate oversight of our strategic networks like power and gas,” Selwood said.

AKL is New Zealand’s largest international airport. It handles more than 18.5 million passengers per year.

Featured image from Wikimedia Commons