Opinion: Rethink or tactical retreat?

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Queenstown Airport Corporation’s (QAC) decision to delay “progressing a noise change proposal to the next stage”, as it was described in its letter of October 2 to affected residents, was widely welcomed.

But it poses the question whether QAC is willing to engage in a strategic rethink of its expansion plans, or is its decision merely a tactical retreat in the face of unexpected levels of opposition?

That letter talks of striking “the right balance between creating a sustainable platform for the long-term growth of air services to the region and the effects of such growth on our communities”.

But it also recognises that QAC’s consultation on the proposed noise changes “should not lead this important discussion on future growth”.

QAC chief executive Colin Keel reiterated these points in comments reported in the ODT, but emphasised that “QAC did not plan to be in a position where it could not meet demand”. Stripping out the double negative, QAC’s strategy remains demand-driven.

Since then, QAC has released statistics showing an annual increase in demand/growth in passenger numbers of 11 per cent for the year to September 2018 when compared with September 2016-17.

At the same time, consistent with its demand-driven business model, QAC has commenced an upgrade of its terminal which will increase its capacity to cater for about 2.8 million passengers annually.

It is safe to assume some noise boundary change will be pursued.

Indeed Mr Keel said, when describing the upgrade, “we continue to work on unlocking the constraints to long-term growth as part of the 30-year masterplan for Queenstown Airport”. Does this sound like a rethink?

Fundamentally, QAC’s business model is not only demand-driven, but treats Queenstown as a tourist hub, rather than a top tourist destination. Its website continues to describe the airport as “Your gateway to stunning southern NZ”!

A strategic rethink in response to the overwhelming rejection of QAC’s noise change proposal would require its board to re-examine whether its hub model is sustainable in that light.

Advancing its masterplan for Wanaka Airport, “in order to form a more comprehensive picture of the dual airport approach”, is merely tinkering with the model.

We already have in ‘stunning southern NZ’ two airports which provide hubs for international visitors: Christchurch and Dunedin.

The Dunedin Airport CEO, Richard Roberts, has spoken recently on RNZ National of the need to abandon the silo mentality arising from the current, fragmented approach to tourism.

Specifically, he identified the opportunity to work together with a regional offer to tourists, based on the concept of a journey through the whole southern region, from Dunedin or Christchurch as points of entry. This collaborative approach must be the way forward given the challenges we face with a massive increase in tourist numbers.

Obviously, such collaboration requires the involvement of not just the airports.

Encouragingly, major tourism operators in Queenstown also oppose the QAC proposal.

They have come together with residents’ associations in the Queenstown Stakeholders Group which made a strong, collective submission to the QLDC to take control of the issue of growth and to think strategically.

The negative impacts of the airport expanding and increasing flights to Queenstown Airport are damning and real. There is no benefit to our primary destinations such as Queenstown becoming a transport hub, and ruined as a destination.

So, will Queenstown’s council reject QAC’s apparent tactical retreat and embark on a full strategic rethink on behalf of its airport? Or will it be business as usual?

As the song goes: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”

David Mayhew is a Kelvin Peninsula resident who lives within Queenstown Airport’s proposed new noise boundaries.