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Then, on Wednesday, the company finally came clean, prompted by the rumours circulating on the good old-fashioned Tarras grapevine. Despite the accuracy of the rumours, the announcement still seemed to drop from out of the blue, taking most by great surprise.
Since then, the company has been remarkably upfront about its desire to build a brand spanking new half-billion-dollar airport at Tarras capable of taking wide-body jets from Australia.
Some hailed it as the "death knell" of the Queenstown Airport Corporation (QAC), and raised again their dream of an "Alpine city" on the Queenstown Airport land at Frankton.
Publicly, the QAC merely noted "with interest" the invaders from the north trying to gazump their own plans for dealing with the — pre-Covid-19 — projected tourist growth.
There lies the conundrum for the QAC’s owners, the Queenstown Lakes District Council and the Auckland International Airport. Are their plans to expand the noise boundaries at Queenstown Airport, and spend $400 million developing Wanaka Airport now in tatters? Having three airports serving New Zealand’s jewel in the tourism crown would seem remarkably extravagant.
Christchurch Airport has an advantage in that its main potential customer, Air New Zealand, has previously expressed support for the idea of a new airport on a greenfields site. Tarras promises a much longer runway than can be achieved at Queenstown or Wanaka, allowing the airline to bring in its 787 Dreamliner, carrying close to 300 passengers.
Christchurch Airport’s chief executive, Malcolm Johns, says modelling for Tarras did not assume Queenstown Airport would close. But if passengers arrive in bulk at Tarras, does that not seriously damage the economics of Queenstown Airport — and, certainly Christchurch ratepayers, rather than those in Queenstown, will be clipping the tickets of those airline passengers. Much will depend on how well Christchurch Airport gets along with the community it wants to move into. Its main object is making a dollar for its shareholders — Christchurch City (75%) and the Government (25%). Can it also convince Tarras residents they will benefit?
It did not happen at Lumsden in 1994. Residents there fought off Queenstown entrepreneur Basil Walker’s plans for an international airport during an eight-day hearing in Invercargill presided over by Judge Shonagh Kenderdine — who coincidentally owns a property next to the proposed Tarras airport site.
She accepted arguments from the farming community of Lumsden that an airport would be a "major blot on the landscape" and that the noise would upset pupils at the school and those wanting to quietly work in their gardens.
Everyone will have an opinion on Tarras, and in the end, once again the courts will most likely be asked to decide. But, the biggest flaw the Christchurch Airport proposal shows up is New Zealand’s lack of cohesive infrastructure planning. Surely the Tarras proposal should not live or die by what one small community thinks but by what the South Island actually needs.
There are already four South Island airports capable of taking international flights.A little bit of co-operation to redistribute air traffic would surely solve Queenstown’s capacity problem with not much more than some talk and a few emails.
Mr Johns says Christchurch Airport was never invited to discuss Queenstown’s capacity issues, and the QLDC’s much anticipated "spatial plan" to address infrastructure does not extend to Tarras, which is beyond its borders. Before even beginning to consider Christchurch Airport’s blue sky thinking, a bit of big picture thinking around what is actually needed could save the South a lot of money and angst.