Airport boss takes a long view


If Queenstown Airport’s a giant — and very expensive — jigsaw puzzle, Colin Keel has the job of working out how all the pieces will fit over the next 30 years.

Keel was appointed as the airport corporation’s new boss in May, beginning his role on June 1.

Three months in, the qualified lawyer, with extensive experience in the aviation industry, says he has no regrets.

“I couldn’t be happier with the decision I made to come here.”

His first priority is to create a comprehensive master plan for the international airport, ensuring its development is planned over the next three decades.

“Before we define what the next infrastructure is, we’ve got to plan for it. I think that’s something we haven’t done as much of in the past.

“[It’s] looking at the airport now and in 30 years … so that we are planning well and we understand that if we need to accelerate, what we need to accelerate; if we need to pull back, what we need to pull back.

“Without that plan, we’re really flying blind.”

Over the past 12 months there had been “massive” development and investment at the airport, including the new $17 million international terminal, opened last year, and the $18m project to widen and resurface the runway and install new lighting to enable evening flights, which officially began on July 18.

While planning could be seen as “stepping backwards”, it’s the opposite, Keel says.

“It’s actually stepping forwards … It’s planning for the next period.

“Airports have a history of sticking around; we can pretty much be sure that they’re going to grow — 30 years is really important for infrastructure like airports.”

The corporation is taking a “clean-sheet approach” to the overarching plan for the airport — “nothing’s in and nothing’s out”, Keel says.

“You can look on that as something that’s daunting.

“I look at it as something that’s exciting and provides great challenges.”

Originally from the United States, Keel obtained a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor of arts degree (honours) from Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania.

The first company he worked for had a “significant” aviation practice, representing airlines on a variety of matters, including contractual, employment, litigation and regulatory aspects.

Working within that area Keel says he was able to understand the aviation industry in a different way and “I just found I loved it”.

He continued that work in law firms and for American Airlines but when Qantas offered him a job in the executive team he moved to Sydney, where he spent 10 years.

“[It was] a great opportunity to stay within the industry I know and really enjoy [and] to see it as a commercial exercise, compared to what I’d seen as a lawyer.”

There he took on strategic, finance, operations and commercial roles, before relocating to Brisbane to work within the rail transport industry, which gave him a “great understanding of what it takes to design, build and maintain significant infrastructure”.

“Obviously, you take the aviation experience and the infrastructure experience, you put it together and heading up an airport is a bit of a natural fit.”

He will be calling on all of that knowledge in Queenstown.

Otago Daily Times