Airport for Tarras plan fine, so long as it doesn’t happen

Queenstown is by a very long shot, the most visited area of this part of the world. PHOTO: GETTY...
Queenstown is by a very long shot, the most visited area of this part of the world. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Plans for a new airport  at Tarras just don’t stack up, writes former Christchurch Airport chief executive and Queenstown Lakes mayor Jim Boult.

Mayor Jim Boult
Mayor Jim Boult
Like many others, I was surprised to learn of Christchurch International Airport’s (CIAL) recently-announced proposal to develop a wide body-capable airport at Tarras. This has obviously created a large amount of discussion around the district. Here are my views on the matter.

Firstly, let us consider the suitability of Tarras for a wide-body-capable airport. Since the Clyde Dam was built and Lake Dunstan formed, Tarras has suffered from widespread fog throughout the winter period. Depending on the year, this can be reasonably consistent for a month to two months. As an ex airport CEO, there’s one thing that I can tell you and that is, fog and airports do not make happy bed mates.

While all of the Central Otago and Queenstown Lakes District’s areas are attractive places to visit, the reality is that Queenstown is by a very long shot, the most visited area of this part of the world and has the largest population.

I have some difficulty therefore in understanding the rationale of placing an airport more than an hour’s drive from Queenstown with access by either a challenging mountain pass or the winding Kawarau Gorge. I have genuine concern about international visitors arriving in wide-body jets (as CIAL envisage this development attracting) tired and picking up a rental car to head for Queenstown on a treacherous winter night.

It’s unfortunate CIAL weren’t able to get round to asking the good folk of Tarras whether they want a wide-body-capable airport on their doorstep before announcing the proposal to build one. When this proposal was mooted some time ago, I had Tarras folk asking me why we wanted to send our airport traffic, and the associated disruption, to their part of the world. I was able to tell them that it certainly wasn’t my idea, I didn’t favour it then, I don’t now, and I understand their position entirely.

Then, let’s take a look at the morality of this. We have CIAL, which is 75% owned by the ratepayers of Christchurch and 25% owned by the New Zealand taxpayer, spending their money on a highly speculative venture in our part of the country.

While I maintain the project has very little chance of becoming reality, the consideration that an organisation with that parentage should come into our region with the intention of taking an initiative which has the potential to destroy a considerable part of the value of the assets owned by our ratepayers, is frankly appalling.

An editorial in the ODT of Saturday July 25 extols all parties involved to get together and in effect, divvy up the visitors around our existing airports. My apologies to the ODT, but you simply don’t know what you’re talking about. We don’t direct tourists where to go. They make the choice. The fact that this part of the world is very attractive to visitors is enormously beneficial to New Zealand as a whole and we should celebrate that. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, that Invercargill Airport has a part in the future play around this matter but that is a for the future.

Again, the harsh reality facing us at present is that it will take a long time for air travel to recover to anything like what it was before Covid-19 which is very much a reality for the rest of the world. That reality, together with the advances in modern aircraft technology, leave me with the view that it will be a long time before Queenstown Airport faces any capacity issues at all. And, again the reality is that apart from the currently proposed small commuter flights, no action will take place on developing commercial flights at Wanaka Airport for a similarly long time.

In summary, a lot of people have got themselves terribly excited about this proposal.

I very much doubt that it will ever see the light of day. As an old friend of mine often says, the chances of this happening are slim and none, and right now slim is out of town.

 

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