A boss announcing safety manager Jamie Waaka’s departure says he was ‘‘synonymous with Queenstown Airport’’. Remarkably, he started working there at the age of 14 — not as child slave labour, but as an after-school job. PHILIP CHANDLER talks to the born-and-bred Queenstowner before he flew off for an OE

As of last week, the Queenstown Airport community was without a very popular member of staff.

Jamie Waaka, who’s been safety manager for two years, finished last Thursday after a 12-year stint with Queenstown Airport Corporation (QAC).

However, as something of an inspiration to local youngsters, the 26-year-old started working for QAC as just a 14-year-old Wakatipu High school kid wanting to earn pocket money.

The airport was only walking distance from his family home.

‘‘I just came up here after school one day and put my name down to see if there was anything going, and there wasn’t at the time.

‘‘But eventually they got back to me to say, ‘hey, we might have some weekend work, just on Saturdays, pushing trolleys and customer service and that sort of stuff’.’’

Waaka says aviation wasn’t a big interest then, but getting exposed to it at such a young age sparked his curiosity, and he continued working part-time for QAC throughout his school years.

As to the buzz, ‘‘it’s such a fast-paced environment’’, he says, ‘‘and there’s always some thing different happening’’.

Early on, he thought about becoming a pilot, ‘‘but as I got sort of to know a few different jobs and roles within the industry, I decided to go down the management route’’.

He undertook a three-year Bachelor of Aviation Management degree at Palmerston North’s Massey Uni, where he was based for two years, between QAC holiday work, of course, before being back here for his final year.

There he learnt not just about airport management but also about airlines and air traffic control and safety.

Graduating in 2018, he joined QAC as a supervisor with the operations team.

He then took on a compliance role at QAC’s Wānaka Airport.

Following a restructure, which merged the Queenstown and Wānaka roles, he successfully applied for the compliance coordinator’s role.

Then, after a smaller restructure, he became safety manager in 2022.

‘‘I’m quite lucky to have been given those opportunities for advancement of my career,’’ Waaka says.

He’s also lucky, he admits, he didn’t have to move to a bigger centre to get a management job.

Waaka says his last and favourite job has encompassed the Queenstown and Wānaka airports (and tiny Glenorchy), across airside operations, terminals and forecourts.

He’s regularly been consulting with stakeholders and doing risk assessments.

To those who think health and safety’s over the top, ‘‘for those people, I’d always say you want to do everything you reasonably can, ’cos it’s really just about people going home safely at the end of the day’’.

As a proud Māori — who identifies with his dad Peter’s Rotorua iwi, Te Arawa — Waaka says he learnt a bit of te reo at school, and it’s become ‘‘a huge part of who I am’’.

He’s been happy to help out fellow staff in their understanding of te ao Māori, and introduced karakia (prayers) at the start of management meetings.

From earning pocket money, studying economics and accounting at school and taking advice from his dad, a business advisor, he and his sister Alyssa managed to buy a Frankton home in 2020 when he was just 23.

Considering local property prices, ‘‘it was a huge achievement’’, he admits.

Waaka’s a huge fan of Queenstown — ‘‘this place has sort of made me part of who I am’’.

However, he’s decided to push pause on his career and backpack around Asia and Europe with two long-time mates.

‘‘I thought now was the right time to go out and do a little bit of travelling while I can before I have too many commitments tying me down.’’

As to whether he’ll return to Queenstown Airport, ‘‘who knows?’’

‘‘I’m kind of leaving it open as to whether I’ll stay overseas and work a little bit or come back to New Zealand or Australia.’’

But wherever he’ll be, he’s sure he’ll land back in aviation.

‘‘I would say so, absolutely.’’

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