The Queenstown and Central Lakes tourism-based economy depends heavily on air travel. With climate change a growing and imminent threat for the world we are acutely conscious of the contribution air travel emissions make to greenhouse gases. We join with others to challenge the “inevitability” of Queenstown Airport Corporation’s (QAC) forecast increase from 2.2 million to 7.1 million passenger movements by 2045.
Focused on improving sustainable practice, our research indicates that relocating the airport would have a significant positive effect on the environmental, social and economic sectors. Choosing not to move the airport would perpetuate exactly the wrong systemic forces that exacerbate climate change and diminish the effect of other interventions, while raising their costs. In contrast, relocating the airport is perhaps the single most useful action this region could take in its effort to address climate change.
This conclusion holds even if the number of flights and passenger movements does not increase. It would still hold if or when aircraft greenhouse emissions stop completely. It holds even if tourists stop travelling to our region by air.
Road Transport Emissions
Concerns regarding road transport emissions miss Queenstown Airport’s changed role from destination to regional hub. QAC’s data shows 51% of passengers landing at Queenstown head to Wanaka and other Central destinations, so no change if directions are reversed.
But what could change with a relocated airport is the efficiency and safety of their travel. Currently most travel with just 1-3 people per vehicle. If the airport were in Central, most who are destined to Queenstown would likely use airport express buses, resulting in fewer vehicles and less emissions. Investment in an electric bus fleet would reduce emissions more quickly than relying on progressive electrification of private vehicles.
Relocation would also allow a quicker and more sure reduction in aircraft emissions. More direct flight lines from Auckland Wellington and Christchurch would reduce current domestic flight times by 6 minutes with a similar reduction likely for international flights.
There’s strong potential that relocation would reduce weather delays that leave aircraft circling or force them to divert to other airports, reducing their costs and emissions. Queenstown Airport's mountainous terrain restricts flight paths and increases the required angles of descent and climb. It also manifests challenging weather as easterly travelling depressions push against the Southern Alps. The airport's location at the confluence of three valleys and the Shotover River delta create complex wind patterns and wind shear that challenge aircraft on final approach. Its short runway and minimal Runway Emergency Safety Areas (RESA) significantly also contribute to flight delays and diversions.
These hazards cause greater restrictions on aircraft operation such as a reduction of crosswinds that are permitted from 40 knots to 25 knots (80km/hr to 50km/hr) and permitted tailwinds reduced from 15 knots to 5 knots (50km/hr to 10km/hr). These all increase the likelihood that a plane must circle while waiting for a safe weather window and increase the risk of diverting flights.
Several possible greenfield airport locations exist in wide open valleys within one hour of Queenstown. These are further east and so further from the main divide's stormy weather. They allow long straight flight paths and enable full length runway and RESA construction, decreasing emissions from aircraft delays.
Queenstown Airport's short runway and minimal RESA lengths, together with the mountainous terrain, restrict the payloads currently allowed for jets. For example, where a Boeing 737-800 jet has a maximum takeoff weight of 79,000kg, it is restricted at Queenstown Airport to just 73,800kg. That means it must depart with 5,200kg less even if the environmental conditions on the day were perfect. At an average 100kg per person (80kg average person plus 20kg luggage), this equates to 52 fewer passengers possible per flight. A relocated airport would allow for a significant increase in payload efficiency and commensurate reduction in emissions.
And, if built to accommodate wide-bodied jets with 302 seats instead of the maximum 186 capacity of narrow-bodied jets, it could reduce by 30% the number of daily flights, further significantly reducing emissions. With wide bodied jets requiring a minimum runway length of 2,200m, this option is not possible at either Queenstown or Wanaka Airports.
Relocation of the Queenstown Airport offers a range of opportunities to improve air travel efficiencies and reduce aircraft emissions that are simply not possible using the dual airport strategy limited to Queenstown and Wanaka Airports.
With the airport dominating Frankton Flats, it forces all residential development to spread throughout the Wakatipu Basin and to ever more distant options such as Kingston, Gibbston Valley and Cromwell. Special housing areas and suburbs are sprouting everywhere, with none having the commercial, cultural, recreational, or educational mix needed for a cohesive community.
This forces everyone into cars and onto roads to get to school, work, shopping, sport or recreation. It stretches the infrastructure of sewerage, stormwater, electricity and telecommunications, draining scarce community resources. The spread population both increases the resource impact per house in terms of land needed, cars required, roads built, and time wasted in travel, while at the same time reducing the viability of public transport, recycling, and the viability of community, sport and cultural centers. A hotch potch patchwork of housing developments throughout the Wakatipu erodes the landscape, environment and liveability for all.
In contrast, the intensification of Frankton Flats as outlined in the FlightPlan2050 proposal, providing an additional 5,000 dwellings for 12,500 residents, would make it a connected, liveable, peaceful community. Within a one kilometer radius, residents would have a complete range of excellent facilities, from schools and hospital to sports and commerce.
Relocating the airport would substantially reduce our local dependency on vehicles and increase the viability of public transport, as well as increasing the use of active options such as cycling, scooters and walking.
As a flat, sunny, substantial and central site, Frankton Flats offers our cheapest place to build. It is the most efficient place to locate the sewerage and other infrastructure, with the intensity making it the lowest cost per dwelling of any alternative and using the least construction or operating resources.
Thoughtful planning could enable the use of more efficient collective heating systems.
This substantial reduction in the resources used per dwelling and the intensification of infrastructure dramatically improves sustainability of building practice and improves the affordability of homes and rental accommodation.
The relocation of Queenstown Airport and development of Frankton Flats for high density residential provides a unique opportunity to create a cohesive community at the heart of our district.
A livable town with a full network of community, retail and commercial activities within easy reach, with affordable accommodation and with excellent public reserves and greenspace. The existing external ring road would support and protect the outstanding internal connectivity. A european style alpine village with people at the center. An opportunity through design to systematically improve sustainable resource use and enhance lifestyle.
The financial case for relocation of Queenstown Airport is compelling. Unlocking the $1.2 billion value of the Airport’s 137ha in Frankton provides cash for the development of a new airport. A similar block of Otago dairy land - the most expensive - would be just $6 million at today’s prices. Even with $20 million legal costs as suggested by Wellington International Airport Chair Tim Brown, the total land cost for a new airport could be less than $30 million.
That’s a much more sensible approach than QAC’s Master Plan proposals to purchase an additional 15.3ha (for option 1) and another 16-18ha (for options 2&3) of expensive Frankton land, plus 40 houses that would be rendered uninhabitable. None of which will provide actual useful facilities or infrastructure but will result in additional debt-funded land costing $200 to $360 million on top of the existing $1.2 billion landholding in Frankton.
The “exorbitant” economic cost comes not from moving the airport, but from leaving where it is, whether QAC expands for more flights or not.
The FlightPlan2050 proposal was a direct response by two local urban planners/architects to a Sustainable Futures workshop in Frankton. Participants aspired to develop a liveable, peaceful and connected community, but the airport obstinately blocks this outcome.
Inspired by this community goal, a deeper investigation of the impacts of relocating the airport has shown significant positive effects across almost all sectors. It would be better for Frankton, the Wakatipu, Wanaka, and the region. Better for the community, tourism, local transport, the environment, and global climate change. Better financially for housing affordability, for ratepayers, for the airlines and for QAC.
So how come it’s not obvious to everyone? Partly because change to the status quo seldom is. And because it’s not easy to unravel the financial and other costs and benefits of an option that is not favoured by the Mayor or QAC.
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