More tourists, same number of flights - Queenstown Airport unveils new future plans

Queenstown Airport.
Queenstown Airport. Photo credit: supplied

Queenstown Airport is predicting a 33 percent increase in the number of passengers over the next decade.

But the number of flights in and out of the tourist resort can stay much the same as they were before the pandemic, thanks to technology, its chief executive claims.

The Queenstown Airport Corporation - which was three-quarters owned by the Queenstown Lakes District Council, with Auckland International Airport holding the minority stake - on Wednesday released its draft master plan for public consultation.

Its 2018 master plan had led to a significant backlash in the community as the airport predicted it would need to double the number of flights to one every four minutes to accommodate the expected 5 million passenger movements by 2045.

That plan was ultimately thrown on the scrap heap, and then the Covid-19 pandemic made the exercise purely academic as air travel came to a screeching halt.

But chief executive Glen Sowry - who took the reins in 2021 - said the airport had learned from that bruising experience, and was now focused on accommodating the demand from visitors for Queenstown while still operating within the social licence granted by the community.

"There's no question that Queenstown Airport's relationship with the community was damaged five years ago when we were talking about significant growth," he told RNZ.

"We've got a new board and new management, post-Covid. We've had the opportunity to engage deeply with many around the community to understand what an appropriate level of activity can and should be, and our 10-year strategic plan and this new master plan reflect that feedback."

The result was the expectation passenger movements - which were 2.3 million in 2019 - would increase from 2.4 million this year to 3.2 million in 2032.

Flights in and out of Queenstown Airport, which sat around 21,000 before the pandemic, had dropped drastically since March 2020 and were this year expected to reach about 18,000. But would only have to increase to just over 22,000 by 2032 to accommodate the influx of passengers.

That was down to technology, Sowry said.

"Air New Zealand in particular has introduced the A321neo aircraft, which is a bigger plane than the existing A320, it's quieter, it burns less fuel, has lower carbon emissions and it has around 27 percent more seats compared to an A320.

"So the ability to fly bigger, quieter, lower emissions aircraft into Queenstown is one of the key drivers of our ability to deliver this master plan.

"One of the commitments we made when we developed our 10-year strategic plan last year was to operate within our noise boundaries for the next decade."

A major redevelopment of the airport's terminal was also on the cards to accommodate the increase in passengers.

The terminal would be 21,000 square metres by 2032 - an increase of 15 percent.

Queenstown Airport also had a goal of having net-zero emissions by 2040. However, the elephant in the room was its users.

"We are not shying away from the fact that airports enable air travel - that's what we exist to do," Sowry said.

"Air travel today is carbon-intensive with fossil fuel jet aircraft, so that is a reality. What we are doing is ensuring we are investing in our own airport infrastructure to ensure we can decarbonise the operations of the airport itself, but equally importantly that we are able to support and enable decarbonised aviation as that comes on stream.

"Be that shorter-range electric aircraft, which will be coming this decade, sustainable aviation fuel operations or potentially into the future green hydrogen operations, so our master plan enables and plans for decarbonisation of aviation through space being made available to support that.

"But that will be led by the aircraft manufacturers and the airlines - our job is to do everything we can to support and enable decarbonised air travel to be accommodated here in Queenstown as that technology becomes available and mainstream."

Just over the horizon in Tarras, in the neighbouring Central Otago district, loomed Christchurch International Airport's plans for an international airport capable of handling wide-body jets.

Sowry was sceptical the business case stacked up.

"Christchurch Airport's made it plain that a key feature of what they're planning to develop, if they progress with it, at Tarras is long-haul international travel. New Zealand has two good long-haul international airports in Auckland and Christchurch now. There's yet to be a business case put that stands up to scrutiny to say that a long-haul airport is required in Central Otago. And when we look at carbon emissions, more long-haul international travel… the need for that is yet to be demonstrated.

"The population for Queenstown Lakes and Central Otago is forecast to in 25 years be similar to Nelson or New Plymouth. No one is suggesting those cities need a new long-haul international airport to service the needs of the local community, because clearly that's not the case.

"Queenstown Airport is well able to meet the needs of aviation and air travel into this region for a long time to come. We're confident of that."

Consultation on the master plan is open until 23 June.