Night flights taking off?

A tourism ''game changer'' and Queenstown Airport's ''coming of age''.

Those were the excited reactions from Queenstown Airport Corporation chief executive Scott Paterson and NZSki chairman (and former QAC chairman) Sir John Davies respectively after New Zealand and Australian aviation authorities last week

approved, in principle, the corporation's bid to allow after-dark flights in to and out of the resort.

The so-called ''night flights'' could extend the airport's current flight operations from daylight-only hours up to 10pm. The benefits would most clearly be seen in winter, as shorter daylight hours during the season restrict flights to taking off and landing usually only up to about 5.30pm.

Given the significance of the winter ski season to the resort, and the potential to substantially increase passenger numbers during those all-important months, it is hardly surprising the reactions from those in the skiing, travel and tourism sectors have been so positive, with Destination Queenstown, the Tourism Industry Association and QAC minority shareholder Auckland Airport welcoming the news as a potential local and national travel and tourism boost, with the potential also to increase job opportunities.

But, and it is a significant but, safety is of course a major concern, given the alpine terrain around the airport and changeable weather which make it one of the country's most challenging airports to fly in to and out of, even during daylight hours.

Pilots have long campaigned for safety improvements at the airport and indeed only specially trained pilots are allowed to operate in and out of Queenstown.

Night flights would mean a considerable change from the restrictions of the current winter cut-off time, known as ''evening civil twilight'' time, which also stipulates a half-hour safety window before dark in case pilots need to return to the airport for any reason after take-off.

Fresh in many people's minds will be the case of the Pacific Blue pilot who was last year found guilty of carelessly operating an aircraft in June 2010 when he took off from Queenstown bound for Sydney more than 10 minutes after the rules stipulated it was safe to do so. Frankton residents who live close to the airport are understandably concerned for their safety.

But the proponents clearly believe the concerns are no longer insurmountable.

The safety case to the civil aviation authorities was reportedly worked on by technical experts from the corporation, air navigation services provider Airways New Zealand, Navigatus Consulting, as well as Air New Zealand, Jetstar and Qantas, and the focus of the process had been on safety rather than commercial interests, according to Civil Aviation Authority air transport and airworthiness general manager Stephen Hunt.

The case was based on advanced navigation technology now in place at Queenstown, introduced by Airways New Zealand, which allowed jets to fly precise paths in a range of weather conditions.

It has to be noted the safety case for night flights has only been given the tick in principle. Authorities and airlines will embark on a further safety study, and night flights will only be granted on the condition the airport makes a raft of improvements (66 in total) to technology and infrastructure, at a cost of about $10 million.

Airlines themselves will now assess whether there is demand for night services and gain regulatory approval. If all the final checks and balances are given, and night flights do take off, likely not to be before mid-2016, there could also be further opposition from residents, particularly those in Frankton.

The potential changes are likely to be eyed closely by Dunedin International Airport, which will be considering any possible impact on its operations.

What is beyond dispute is that, from humble beginnings as the tiny Frankton aerodrome licensed in 1935, Queenstown Airport has become a burgeoning international enterprise, providing a vital gateway for visitors to one of the country's most beautiful destinations, thereby contributing significantly to the region's economic growth and opportunities. It is undoubtedly flying high.


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