An airport with vision for the future

Queenstown Airport. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Queenstown Airport. PHOTO: ODT FILES
Queenstown Airport can achieve a balance between sustainable growth and preserving the special character of the region, writes Queenstown Airport Corporation chief executive Glen Sowry.

I read with interest in the ODT last week that Queenstown Airport has no development potential beyond 2027, according to Rhys Boswell, an executive at Christchurch Airport working on the proposal for a new airport in Tarras. As the chief executive of Queenstown Airport that was news to me. And it’s not the case.

One of the first things I observed when I joined Queenstown Airport 10 months ago is the passion and interest people have in the airport and in shaping its future.

Our job at Queenstown Airport is to ensure that we provide quality and affordable air links to New Zealand, Australia and beyond for the region and operate an airport that the community has pride in.

My primary focus has been working with the board, the airport team and shareholders to set our strategic direction. We are working on a vision for the future that considers the opportunities and challenges we face and ultimately strikes the right balance between economic and social benefits to the region alongside environmental priorities.

Something we have heard loud and clear from the community in recent years is a desire for moderate and sustainable growth. Consequently, we will not seek to expand the existing noise boundaries at Queenstown Airport. And we don’t need to. We have ample capacity to grow and support the recovery of the region over the next 10 years and beyond. This is in part being made possible by new aircraft technology that enables growth to occur with minimal community impact. Further advances in aviation technology will only improve the potential of Queenstown Airport in the decades ahead.

Our 10-year strategic plan will inform the long-term master plan for Queenstown Airport. We will be consulting on the draft master plan over the next year. Through that consultation we will have the opportunity to better understand the regional communities’ vision for this airport.

Christchurch Airport has a vision for the future of aviation in this part of the South Island that is very different from ours.

There may be a need in decades to come for greater capacity in the region, but the available capacity at four existing airports in the lower South Island should not be ignored. Likewise, Christchurch Airport itself has significant surplus capacity already built and available it can service long-haul connectivity to the South Island with.

I question whether a fifth airport in the lower South in Tarras and the required supporting infrastructure is the right call. Ultimately, it will appropriately be the communities of this region that should be front and centre in that decision. Christchurch Airport’s statements to date suggest it will rely heavily on long-haul wide-body jets flying into Tarras and turbo-charged visitor numbers to be commercially viable.

The catchment of Central Otago and Queenstown Lakes district is forecast to be 100,000 by 2048. This local catchment can be very effectively serviced by Queenstown Airport. To put this into perspective, the region’s projected catchment will be less than that of Nelson/Tasman and quite sensibly, no-one is suggesting that region needs a new long-haul international airport.

Queenstown Airport connects our region with New Zealand and four Australian cities and beyond. The economic reality is that the relatively small local catchment cannot support anything like that level of existing international connectivity. About 95% of all passengers on these international flights are inbound visitors to our region which is what makes this level of connectivity commercially sustainable.

The proposed Tarras airport will also be very heavily reliant on inbound visitors to make it commercially viable. The visitor numbers that Queenstown Airport facilitates would pale into insignificance alongside the inbound tourist numbers the proposed Tarras airport would bring into the region.

There is some excellent work happening across the region and country to shape a new approach to regenerative tourism and a more sustainable future which seeks to balance volume and value which Queenstown Airport is embracing.

Low-emissions aviation will require a connected network of airlines and airports to enable it.

All airports around New Zealand will need to be ready to support and enable the decarbonisation of the aviation industry and airlines’ future needs. By planning for the long term, through the preparation of our master plan, Queenstown Airport will introduce infrastructure to support the decarbonisation of the industry, including electric regional aircraft operations and alternative fuels.

The people of our region are proudly protective of the extraordinary natural beauty and unique character of this place. Queenstown Airport is well placed to achieve the balance between sustainable growth and preserving the special character of the region.