The "silliest idea" says Mayor Boult

"I don't see any logic in [shifting the airport] and it's probably the silliest idea I've heard in a long time" says Mayor Boult." (Crux - May 21, 2019)

His response might be shared by many who have lived with the airport in Frankton for a long time. But does that mean it is the logical place for a busy international airport long-term?

Let's look at some of the concerns the Mayor raises.

We should Keep the Airport in Frankton Because .....

Queenstown AIrport

1. The airport has always been there

Mayor Boult's first response was to point to a framed map on his office wall that shows “Queenstown Airport gazetted in 1936": saying "the airport was put there for the very good and proper reason because it’s close to the town”. But do those “good and proper reasons” of 1936 have relevance today?

Eighty three years ago, the total population of Queenstown was just 931 people, “with a trickle of summer holidaymakers." (Stats NZ and New Zealand History,)

The grass airstrip that was once “close to town” now sits smack in the middle of Frankton, our district’s major retail, educational, sporting and business centre with nearly three times the retail space of Queenstown Bay. Instead of the several hundred passengers in small four-seater planes of 1936, we now have 2.3 million annually flying in large jet aircraft, with demand of 7.1 million passenger movements forecast by 2045. The decisions made by our parents or grandparents - when HMS Earnslaw still carted sheep to the Kingston Flyer and aircraft were a novelty - are hardly relevant for the infrastructural decisions we need to make today.

The limitations of Queenstown Airport are glaringly obvious. The mountainous terrain, challenging weather, short runway, minimal RESA zones and negative impacts on community and environment all constrict its operation and potential to expand. It is rated among the world's least safe airports for scheduled jet services, resulting in airlines prescribing additional operational limits on their jets, such as reduced wind limits and takeoff payloads reduced by 5,200kg (equivalent to 52 passengers). Queenstown Airport is clearly a suboptimal asset that becomes less suitable with each passing year.

As the "What's changed" page indicates, our challenge is to notice and understand these enormous changes that continue to impact our dynamic region, and to make the best plans for our future. Now is a time for vision - not a time for nostalgia.

2. The cost of moving is too much

"Yes, there would be some value out of selling the land, but the cost of constructing a new airport would burn that up several times over" says the Mayor. 

What is not said is that the dual airport strategy - with its extensive new construction across two expensive and constrained locations - would cost more than building one new airport on a cheaper, more fit for purpose greenfield site.

This becomes evident when you read QAC's Queenstown Master Plan Options (Aug 2017), which shows that achieving QAC's preferred 5.1 million passenger movements at Queenstown Airport would require a complete rebuild of all buildings and infrastructure at the airport (for which no estimate is given), plus the purchase of some $100 - $357 million additional land in Frankton (depending on options chosen), and plus around $400 million invested into Wanaka Airport. 

Even capping Queenstown Airport at 3.1 passenger movements and diverting the remaining 4 million to Wanaka Airport would likely require more capital investment than simply relocating. Check our numbers and analysis of comparative construction costs.

It is not clear what is the source of the statement "there would be some value in the Frankton land".  It could be QAC’s 2018 Annual Report where its Frankton landholding is listed at $207 million." 

This low value results from the land's current zone rules and limitations under the operative Queenstown Lakes District Plan. As an airport, most of its land is currently zoned Rural General and QAC's valuation prices it as low as $8.90 /m2 for the RESA area and just $34 /m2 for the 97 hectares of 'general airfield' land. But QAC's Seagars Valuers report (June 2018) values residential zoned land owned by QAC at $1,136 /m2. If all QAC's land was zoned High Density Residential it would be worth over $1.2 billion, even allowing for 20% to be set aside for reserves and roading.

With QLDC being both the District Plan’s controlling authority and a 75% shareholder of QAC, it would seem reasonable to expect that a coordinated and comprehensive approach to the rezoning of this land into High Density Residential could be managed. 

$1.2 billion is a figure that should make us all sit up and take notice.

That's enough to build a new greenfield airport without debt. Check our figures and analysis of land costs, including cost of land at alternative locations.

3. Emergency preparedness

"Have people also thought of what happens when we have the inevitable earthquake that we are likely to have" askes Mayor Boult. He notes that access to an airport in an emergency saves lives and says relocating it would mean "we would walk away from that".

Yes we have thought of that. Queenstown is in earthquake country and - in addition to saving the lives of people critically injured in an emergency - we learned from the Kaikoura quake that we also need the ability to evacuate thousands of tourists when disaster strikes.

But this essential capacity to be able to airlift thousands of people daily from the Wakatipu Basin is not a block to the relocation of Queenstown Airport. 

We suggest taking a page out of Singapore's copybook for preparedness, where it designates and designs several of its freeways for emergency aircraft use.  We could do something similar with the Ladies Mile straight. Far-fetched? Check our page on "Emergency Preparedness" for more detailed analysis of this.

4. Loss of jobs in the district

"Have we thought about the 700 jobs at the airport and where they would all go to?" asks the Mayor. Again, yes we have. The answer is more nuanced than the implication of 700 jobs lost to the district.

We have requested a breakdown of the 700 employed through Queenstown Airport and will publish a more detailed analysis once we have this information. For the moment, some general observations are:

  • It should be obvious that no jobs will be lost, or lost to the region, as the airport and all associated activity continues to operate;
  • Only about 75 people work directly for QAC;
  • The Frankton Vision includes a transport hub for vertical landing and lift-off. This ensures that all current and future commercial helicopter activity and associated employment can continue from within the basin. In addition, a new market would likely add to employment in the district with those willing to pay extra to fly to the airport using helicopters or Zephyr Airworks autonomous electric air taxi, which partnered with Air NZ in 2018.
  • General Aviation (GA), including all current fixed wing tour operations, would remain based out of Queenstown as would the associated jobs. We are actively investigating options that would enable this and will publish these on this website.
  • We also note that there is no guarantee for GA remaining at Queenstown Airport long-term, as QAC’s Master Plan includes getting rid of the crosswind runway vital to small plane operations. And there will be little time or will to schedule scenic flights between jets flying every four minutes during the most popular times of day. Long-term under the dual airport strategy, GA could suffer the same demise Wakatipu Aero club already has.
  • Relocation of the airport could be positive for many employees. A major issue for both employers and workers in this district is the cost of housing. Many would welcome the opportunity to live closer to work and have access to accommodation options that are more affordable.
  • The option to commute, as many currently do into the basin, remains for those choosing to live in the Wakatipu .
  • This transition would be gradual. The process of relocating the airport, even once the decision is made, would take years. Many years' forewarning and natural staff turnover provides a time for adjustment.

5. We can't just build a new town

"Would you create another town where you are going to put the airport?" asks Mayor Boult. No, is the simple answer - it's not necessary.

All of the alternative locations we have scoped within one hour of Queenstown are also conveniently close to existing towns and residential areas. Importantly, none is so close as to suffer the noise issues that face the many residents in the current flight corridor that extends from Fernhill to Gibbston Valley.

6. "Sorry, but it's silliness", concludes Mayor Boult

Not so if our above analysis is right. We have offered to talk the Mayor and Councillors through the analysis, but that offer has not been taken up. It remains open. 

There are two other concerns we have heard expressed about relocating Queenstown Airport.

7. I like the personal convenience of the airport being close when I travel

This is the most common response we've heard from those supporting the dual airport strategy. If you live in the Wakatipu and fly frequently, it is a bonus to have the airport nearby.

But how much value should we place on this occasional convenience? By travelling just ten or twenty minutes to the airport instead of one hour those of us living in the Wakatipu save 40 or 50 minutes a few times a year?

For most, however, this is not the case. More than half (57%) of people using Queenstown Airport are destined for Wanaka, Central and Southland. For them, a more central regional airport would reduce travel times.

And more importantly, we should consider the 92.5% of submitters who opposed the proposed expansion of noise boundaries. For them the negative impacts of this convenience are felt and heard daily, from 6:45am to almost 10pm. QAC's expansion plans mean that many will have to stop conversations outdoors for a minute or two every four minutes during peak times, as planes land or take off. This affects people right through the flight corridor from Gibbston Valley to Fernhill. 

We should also consider the loss of development rights that would directly impact on the owners of 3,000 additional properties if the proposed noise expansion were to be approved, now or any time in the future.

As local residents, we also enjoy the convenience of being close to the airport now and then. But we don't think this occasional benefit to us compensates for the substantial continuous negative impact on the broader community and our environment.

And that's before we consider the other many benefits of relocating as outlined on this website, such as: better capital investment; better business investment; achieving the Vision for Franton, and the host of other positive outcomes.

8. We need the airport for our tourist economy

There was a time when having the airport so close to Queenstown was important to the growth of our community and economy. But the proximity of the airport now impacts negatively on both our community and our value as a tourist destination.

The outstanding natural environment is our primary asset. Queenstown Airport systemically erodes this, both with it's noise impacts and its dominance over Frankton which drives the disconnected patchwork of housing developments throughout the Wakatipu.

Development restrictions submitted by QAC during the District Plan Review process also mean that “activities sensitive to air noise” (ASANs) cannot be built within the noise boundaries, severely limiting our community’s ability to create affordable high density housing and other vital activities on Frankton Flats and further afield. 

The stress of double digit annual growth has overwhelmed our local community and threatens to undermine the 'social licence' needed to provide a quality visitor experience.

The national tourism strategy is responding. It promotes the delivery of visitors to regional hubs from which they can disperse widely to share both the love and the load of tourism. Air New Zealand also advises not to  "either starve or crowd out local communities."

Retaining the airport with cheap flights directly into Queenstown promotes volume over quality and undermines all the strategic alignments that would enhance both our local community and the tourist economy.

How do you sell keeping the airport in Frankton?

With 92.5% of residents rejecting QAC's proposed expansion of noise boundaries and the community's concern about its impact on growth, traffic and the environment, how do you sell keeping the airport in Frankton?

No problem to Mayor Boult - just wait for QAC to tell us what it wants to do and folk will be satisfied. (Crux - May 21, 2019)

No Sales Pitch Needed

Leave it to QAC?

According to Mayor Boult, QAC has listened to the community's concerns. They will rejig their forecasts for passenger growth and give us some different numbers. These will be more appealing to the public. 

But will you believe the sale's pitch?

 It will be hard to walk back from a projection of 7.1 million passenger movements by 2045, because:

  1. QAC touted these as robust and conservative.
  2. 7.1 million in 2045 amounts to an annual increase of just 4.4%, which is already way less than the double-digit annual growth the airport has sustained over the past decade.
  3. Experience shows past forecasts have hugely underestimated growth - with, for example, the noise boundaries set in 2009 to last till 2037 now hitting their limit 15 years earlier than projected.

It will also be hard to pretend that a reduction in targets for Queenstown Airport won't translate directly to an increase in numbers at Wanaka Airport. That, after all, is what a dual airport strategy is - spreading the total demand across two airports.

Public statements by QAC's CEO Colin Keel on the future of Wanaka Airport play coy, suggesting a slow introduction "based on natural demand" of two or three domestic flights daily, with "the odd charter flight for the ski season" gently testing international flights (ODT, 1/5/2019).

But the already announced $300 to $400 million investment makes clear the expansion planned at Wanaka is extensive. By comparison,  QAC's Annual Report (2018) shows its total non-land assets valued at just $129 million. (This is "fair market" valuation, not depreciated "book value".)

Queenstown is no longer the majority's destination

Mayor Boult assured Crux the problem of transport from Queenstown Airport into Queenstown would be resolved.

But the information provided by QAC is that most (57%) passengers transit from the airport, not to Queenstown Bay, but onto other destinations such as Wanaka, Central and southern regions. 

Our town has moved

Queenstown Bay has long since stopped being the main town centre of the Wakatipu community. The district's epicentre has moved to Frankton, with its schools, supermarkets, sport facilities, retail and light industry.

But Frankton remains hollow - a place to drive to and from. There is no longer a town in the basin that is the heart of our community. 

It's time for vision

We are at a critical time in the history of our district. The choices we make now will define our district's character for the next hundred years.

If we refuse to change course, our outstanding natural environment, community and lifestyle will become increasingly dominated and degraded by Queenstown Airport.

If instead, we boldly choose to relocate Queenstown Airport, everything gets better. Our research shows that relocating the airport would have extensive positive effects across 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 Queenstown Airport Corporation. Hard to believe? Then read our summary here.

Economist John Maynard Keynes said "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do?"

A good question to ask QAC and our community leaders.

Does this make sense to you?

Queenstown Airport in Wanaka

Queenstown Airport plonked into Wanaka

Because we are so used to Queenstown Airport sitting in the middle of Frankton, it can be hard to understand how illogical this site is for an expanding international airport.

So for comparison, in the map above we show the airport relocated into a similar position in  Wanaka. Use the link if you want to see how well this works!