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At risk: Glenorchy Air and other Milford flightseers fear for their futures if they can't land at Milford any more

By PHILIP CHANDLER

Milford flightseeing companies, mostly Queenstown-based, are outraged over a governance group’s proposal to stop small tourist planes flying to and from world-famous Milford Sound.

Milford Opportunities is floating proposals to improve and lengthen the Milford visitor experience, before producing a masterplan.

One option, to remove the fixed-wing runway over the next three to five years, has flightseeing operators fearing for their future.

The governance group suggests this would free up ‘‘very scarce flat space’’ for a broad range of visitor uses like a visitor hub and experience centre and
tracks.

Helicopter access would still be allowed, however.

If the runway was shut, six flightseeing operators — four in Queenstown and one each in Wanaka — would lose most of their business.

‘‘I don’t think [the group] realise over 95% of their work comes from flying in and out of Milford or picking up people who’ve bussed in and want to fly back,’’ veteran Queenstown aviator Jules Tapper says.

‘‘It’s an idea which has been poorly thought out and poorly promulgated.’’

At a recent ‘engagement’ meeting with the Milford Opportunities team, Tapper says he was ‘‘absolutely surprised at the passion that came out’’.

‘‘These guys were really pissed off.’’

He says it’s a ‘‘madcap idea’’ to ban small planes but allow choppers with
‘‘smaller capacity, higher cost and more noise’’.

He says in response to earlier concerns over Milford aircraft noise, operators had spent millions buying larger, quieter planes.

‘‘For Caravans, you’re talking $2 million each, you’re talking very serious money, and all the infrastructure that goes around it.’’

Another veteran local aviator, Air Milford’s Hank Sproull, calls the governance group’s idea ‘‘just crazy’’ and reckons it’s ‘‘absolute bullshit’’.

‘‘You can’t have a group formed like that and then start putting people out of business.

‘‘This is what Department of Conservation tried to do 20 years ago and it failed.

‘‘It took us probably $200,000 in court battles to get our right to operate into Milford.

‘‘These boffins have no idea about what goes on at Milford and they’re just making outrageous bloody statements.’’

Instead of shutting down the runway, it needed to be managed, he says — ‘‘there’s not even a toilet’’.

‘‘And they don’t understand the strategic importance of the runway for evacuations or search and rescue.’’

Glenorchy Air owner James Stokes estimates, before Covid, 65,000 visitors a year flew between Queenstown, Wanaka and Te Anau and Milford.

Three-quarters of those were carried on small planes.

‘‘I would just comment that aviation hasn’t really had much of a seat at the table at the initial stages of this project, which has been going on since 2017.’’

He notes the runway’s been around since 1952 and the first plane landed in 1938, ‘‘so it’s not like a Johnny-come-lately-kind experience we’re doing here’’.

Gareth Allen, chief pilot for Queenstown’s True South Flights, figures Milford flightseeing pumps $30m to $40m a year into NZ’s economy.

‘‘It’s high-value tourism, it’s extremely highly-valued by all our customers.’’

As for the runway making way for other uses, he says it’s not really suitable to build on because it floods at least once or twice a year.

‘‘The ground underneath is pretty tough to build anything on,’’ Allen says.

scoop@scene.co.nz