Queenstown Airport: Its history and its heart

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Last week Queenstown Airport celebrated its 85th anniversary.

The aerodrome was established in 1935 by a community organisation, the Frankton Aerodrome Board, which over the years reinvented itself several times to become the Queenstown Airport Corporation of today.

In preparing to mark the occasion, I have spent time considering the importance of this vital majority community-owned company and how deeply embedded it is in the Southern
Lakes communities.

Queenstown Airport is one of oldest commercial airports on its original site.

Unlike most commercial airports in New Zealand, Queenstown Airport has never had central government shareholding or financial backing.

It was the early Southern Lakes pioneers who established and then built over many decades this alpine aviation base.

Queenstown Airport is a unique and special place that brings people to Queenstown’s doorstep where most of its customers live, work, and visit.

It is regularly voted one of the most scenic airports in the world.

As it evolved from airstrip to international airport, it has supported broad-based aviation activities, hundreds of local businesses and jobs, and served as a critical lifeline in a
remote part of NZ.

My time with QAC has been relatively short.

I joined the board in 2017 and was recently appointed chair, in the midst the Covid-19 pandemic and the huge associated challenges for the airport company, our airport communities, the wider communities, and the tourism sector we support.

I regard this region as the crown jewel of NZ and it holds a special place in my heart.

Throughout my early and working life I have repeatedly visited, holidayed and worked here.

Every time I land at Queenstown Airport and exit the plane my heart skips a beat at the magnificent sight of the Remarkables towering over the airport.

You know you have arrived somewhere very special.

My family ancestors, Stevensons and Youngs, were here from the 1860s and left their names on rivers, ranges, mountains, lake arms, islands and roads.

Theirs were more treacherous and challenging journeys.

In 2019, 2.4 million passengers arrived and departed through ZQN.

The airport is also host to a thriving general aviation community with more than 40,000 general aviation movements last year, making ours one of the busiest airfields in NZ.

Queenstown and Wanaka airports are estimated to have contributed about $526 million to the district GDP, a significant portion of the district’s $3.06 billion total.

It could be many years before we see pre-Covid levels of activity again.

Forecasts indicate about 900,000 passengers will arrive and depart over the course of this financial year, similar to numbers we last saw 10 years ago.

Regretfully, this has meant some very talented and committed people have left our business recently, as we have restructured to a smaller organisation for the short- to medium-term.

One of the silver linings that ripples right through QAC and the wider community is the opportunity this gives us to reset our future, be innovative, collaborative and considered.

None of us knows quite how long recovery will take.

But I can say that QAC is in good heart — we have put in place sound financial plans and have considerable resilience to manage a long haul out of Covid-19, including the business
impacts of another possible outbreak.

We are determined to support the wider community and play our part in the region’s recovery.

As we mark 85 years, I would like to recognise and thank the many businesses and people of Queenstown Airport, and to pay tribute to those early pioneers — Wigley, Smith, Lucas, Topliss and Hewitt, to name a few.

They were innovative and courageous, and founded this special airport that is NZ’s base of alpine aviation and adventure.

Their legacy is with us.

And I am confident it puts us in good stead to get through what will be challenging times ahead, and forge a truly sustainable path forward.

Happy 85th birthday, ZQN.

Here’s to the next 85 years.

Kia kaha to you all.

Adrienne Young-Cooper is Queenstown Airport Corporation’s new board chair