Auckland Seaplanes has been running flights from Auckland’s downtown waterfront for almost 10 years; now it’s being forced to shift its base, its business model and its entire brand.

Initially forced out of Wynyard Quarter to operate from Waiheke Island by the America’s Cup, the company now known as Island Aviation confirms its seaplanes won’t be returning to the waterfront, despite the departure of the last Team NZ and America’s Cup infrastructure.

Eke Panuku, the urban regeneration arm of Auckland Council, says it warned the company in 2019 that there wouldn’t be space for it to return downtown – forcing the company to suspend seaplane services.

This week, the company reports its return to the air is unlikely anytime soon. “We will have to suspend seaplane operations until we can find a new base,” says chief executive Chris Sattler. “Given the various stakeholders, this is unlikely before next summer.”

The company says it was the first ISO-certified carbon-zero air operators in Australasia, having offset its emissions via audited reforestation projects since 2016 – the same year it won the New Zealand Tourism Award.

It also holds a ‘pest-free warrant’ from the Department of Conservation, allowing plane trips out to protected islands in the Hauraki Gulf.

“Now the great excuse or pretext of the America’s Cup has gone, this confirms my suspicion on the way the Super City bosses make things very easy for favoured corporates, yet obstruct and in effect persecute those they do not favour.”
– Mike Lee, former councillor

Former Auckland councillor and activist Mike Lee says it’s an example of a council-operated entity eschewing waterfront activities in favour of property development, and treating those not on the preferred list of corporates with disdain.

“These people have been bullied and marginalised by Panuku for years now,” he said. “And now the great excuse or pretext of the America’s Cup has gone, this confirms my suspicion on the way the Super City bosses make things very easy for favoured corporates, yet obstruct and in effect persecute those they do not favour.”

Lee was involved in the company’s initial struggles to land the site at Wynyard Quarter’s North Wharf back in 2013.

Waterfront Auckland, in charge of the area at the time, requested a number of safety audits. That was a move Lee questioned, pointing to the long history the city has with seaplanes.

In the 1940s, ‘flying boats’ took early air-travel pioneers on the six and a half hour voyage across the Tasman on a weekly basis, with Mechanic’s Bay acting as a prototype of Auckland International Airport.

Auckland Seaplanes was allowed to operate for seven years – but now it seems the aviation company has been grounded once more, at least when it comes to the Auckland waterfront.

Lee sees it as a move by the Council to block groups not contributing directly to their interests.

“All these people in my assessment are much more interested in property developments (of course by preferred corporates) than waterfront activities per se,” he says. “It seems the seaplane fell victim to Emirates Team NZ and their bureaucratic supporters but even now after those gangsters took the money and buggered off the seaplane people are still being blocked.”

He likens it to the recently cut Onehunga to the city train line, which saw commuters offloaded in Newmarket to make way for development on the City Rail Link at Britomart Station. “Just like the Onehunga rail services – powerful individuals are using power to get their way regardless,” Lee says.

However, a spokesperson from Eke Panuku said when the location for the 36th America’s Cup was agreed upon, Eke Panuku and the Council identified several commercial tenants who would need to relocate and helped them review a range of relocation options both inside and outside of Wynyard Quarter.

“Through this period, it became apparent that due to the nature and extent of the construction works, and the final configuration of the Wynyard Wharf, Halsey Wharf and Viaduct Marina, it would be impossible to continue to accommodate them during and after the America’s Cup event,” the spokesperson said. “This, along with exit timing, was agreed with them in April 2019. Auckland Seaplanes have been fully compensated for their exit and the agreement was full and final.”

According to Eke Panuku’s website, Wynyard Quarter, the city’s newest waterfront neighbourhood, is going through one of the largest urban regenerations in the country, with the third and final stage recently begun of a commercial transformation of the area expected to finish in 2025.

The main focus of this is providing office space in new buildings in the Wynyard Quarter area. “We all look forward to welcoming the future tenants of these buildings to Wynyard Quarter in the coming years,” says Fiona Knox, Eke Panuku priority location director for the waterfront.

In a meeting in March last year, the Eke Panuku board discussed the future of the water spaces under their control and indicated a shift towards public-facing rather than commercial occupation, especially in the areas around the Halsey St and Hobson St wharves.

“Existing occupation consents, licences and commercial agreements dictate the use of the water space from Westhaven to Queens Wharf,” the minutes read.

“There has been a prevalence of usage of water space to berth white boats (recreational vessels, super-yachts), working boats (fishing fleet, construction barges) and other commercial uses including SeaLink Ferry and the Auckland Seaplane. Our strategy, particularly in the new water space is deliberately for greater public connection to the water and to avoid replication or competition with what is already provided for at Westhaven and Silo marinas.”

The board was unsure of what would happen following the America’s Cup, saying it was unclear exactly what would happen if Emirates Team NZ lost. Water spaces like the one previously occupied by Auckland Seaplanes would need to be managed in a flexible way between events.

Matthew Scott covers immigration, urban development and Auckland issues.

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