The plan to ease airport pressure

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Queenstown Airport is under pressure – but plans are underway to alleviate the strain.

It’s about 1pm at Queenstown Airport on a Tuesday and Christchurch visitor Barbara Day is struggling to find a seat. 

Not so much for herself – but her elderly parents Alan Cooke, 79, and wife Joan, 80, who have come to see her off. 

“I come through quite a lot and I just think it’s very crowded, especially departures. There’s not enough seating – it’s usually me that stands to let these guys sit down.” 

Her father and Queenstowner Alan agrees, saying parking spaces are also getting steadily more difficult to find.
“I tend to park further and further away.” 

Their gripes aren’t news to Steve Sanderson, the chief executive of Queenstown Airport. It’s always had to try to keep pace with exploding visitor and population growth. 

“This airport terminal is over-trading for what it was built for – it’s the mix that’s hurting us the most,” Sanderson tells Mountain Scene, moments after helping budget carrier Jetstar last month announce a new twice-weekly connection to Sydney and new direct daily flights to Wellington. 

The terminal was built to handle a passenger mix of 95 per cent domestic travellers and five per cent international. Those numbers are now running at about 70 per cent domestic and 30 per cent international, Sanderson explains. 

In August, the terminal saw 100,000 passengers pass through – the first time that’s happened in a single month. Projections also show it’s likely to carry a million passengers for the first time in a calendar year by this summer. 

And with the main arrivals passage crossing over with the airport’s main departure zone, it can get a bit chaotic.
The airport has already made several moves to ease the bottlenecks. Passengers can now pay the departure tax at not just the Travelex depot, but also Patagonia, new departure levy kiosks and online. 

Jetstar passengers can also now pay the tax online when they book their flights. 

“The take-up on that has been great. Already we’ve seen less queuing,” Sanderson says. 

Longer-term measures include terminal expansion plans pegged to begin in February. 

Sanderson says the exact details of the expansion aren’t yet pinned down, and drawings are still being cemented. 

“The thing we’re focused on in February is to stop the crossover of arriving passengers and departing passengers in the main area. 

“We’re looking at how we can improve that. It’s obviously a congestion point.”

Then there’s Sanderson’s push for night flights by next winter. 

Not only will it boost visitor numbers to the Wakatipu by making short-hop weekends more attractive for Australians, Sanderson says it’ll help ease passenger bottlenecks. 

The airport is consented to operate till 10pm but in winter the last flights tend to be around 5pm as airline safety plans for Queenstown require take-offs 30 minutes prior to dusk. 

Sanderson hopes to see that pushed out by a few hours. 

“At the moment, between 2-5pm is when most of the internationals arrive. If we can take that out to 6-7pm, it will take the peakness out of this terminal.” 

In last week’s Mountain Scene, Sanderson boldly urged sky regulator the Civil Aviation Authority not to procrastinate if an airline submitted an application for night flights. 

“The regulators need to give their full attention and support to New Zealand’s number one destination,” he said at the time. 

Air New Zealand has no plans to lodge one at this stage, with a spokeswoman telling Mountain Scene it doesn’t believe the safety case has been sufficiently made. 

However, budget carrier Jetstar’s Australasian boss David Hall has previously told Mountain Scene the practicalities of night flights should be assessed. 

For Sanderson, who this week announced he’ll depart in January to be the Wellington Airport chief executive, such pressure is basically a good thing. 

“It’s a nice problem – you have exponential growth and you have to figure out how you’re going to keep up with it. 

“The trick of any master planning or development is not to overspend – because you could have a downturn.” 

Sanderson adds: “You always want to stay up with the growth or slightly ahead – not go off and build for two million passengers a year and for the next decade your assets are under-utilised. It’s a balance.”