16 Mar 2021

Queenstown Airport expects return to pre-Covid levels by 2024

7:29 pm on 16 March 2021

Queenstown Airport is forecasting a return to pre-pandemic passenger numbers by 2024.

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Photo: 123RF

Queenstown Airport Corporation's (QAC) statement of intent will go before the Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) on Thursday.

More than two million passengers went through the airport for the first time in 2018, and it is expecting to exceed it again in 2023.

Plans in 2018 to allow double the number of flights in and out of the airport by 2045 outraged locals and led to the proposal being scrapped.

Similarly, talks about expanding the services at Wānaka Airport were ditched after blowback from the community.

In last year's statement of intent, the airport promised not to increase the number of aircraft into Queenstown or to develop Wānaka Airport before July 2023.

Queenstown Airport Corporation chair Adrienne Young-Cooper said the numbers in this year's statement of intent did not signal any intention to reverse course.

"There are a reasonable set of scenarios which would see us recovering over five years, it's 2019 to 2024 so taking actually five years, potentially, to recover to something like pre-Covid levels.

"I hope that people read them for what they are. They are not targets. We have consulted a lot of people to look at how fast they think international tourism into New Zealand may recover - this is what this represents. It doesn't represent more than that."

The return to pre-Covid passenger numbers did not require the airport to expand its noise boundaries - which limited the number of flights in and out of Queenstown.

Any plans for expansion of flight numbers or development of airport facilities would follow consultation with the community, Young-Cooper said.

"The council is currently doing some really important work... for the spatial plan of Queenstown Lakes, that includes within it projections for population growth and how the urban areas for Queenstown, Wānaka and other urban areas within the district might grow.

"We will be using those projections and then asking what does that mean for aviation services in Queenstown Lakes and, I don't want to commit to an actual date, but certainly over the next 18 months we will be coming back out to the community," she said.

"There was a perception we were driving growth through our master planning, we've pulled back... the council is now going out to do its consultation on the spatial plan and we will be following after that, after the community has had a really good process with the council on the future of the district - we are a supporting infrastructure."

However, critics of the airport and its earlier proposals were concerned the statement of intent signalled a return to the status quo and pre-Covid growth.

"I've no doubt looking at this SOI [statement of intent] and looking at all the communications coming from QAC and some of the communications coming from QLDC that the airport company and those within council who are pro-airport growth are completely ignoring the community," Wānaka Stakeholders Group deputy chair Mark Sinclair said.

"For example, we have written to various politicians and the mayor of QLDC, and we've asked the mayor five times in the last month to answer three simple questions for us in relation to some concerns the community has - we've not had a response. So the mayor is ignoring a group of concerned residents numbering nearly 3500 people."

The group would be writing to all councillors outlining its concerns over the statement of intent, the process and its belief the community was being ignored, Sinclair said.

Kelvin Peninsula Community Association chair David Mayhew said he would not be attending Thursday's council meeting to outline his group's concerns.

"I've decided the council doesn't want to hear from us," he said.

"Whenever I've recently appeared before the council it's pretty plain they're not listening. They've made up their mind over what they want to do."

He wanted the current air noise boundaries to be set in stone, limiting the number of aircraft movements for the foreseeable future.

"The airport has never accepted that restriction," Mayhew said.

"In the document they say for the next three years they will not seek to expand the noise boundaries, because they obviously don't feel they need to, they certainly hold onto the prospect of expanding the noise boundaries after that time if that's necessary to meet demand.

"So that means the problem we had at the end of 2019 with excess noise and increased number of passenger movements will come back according to their forecasts sometime in 2024-25 and we'll be back to the same issue.

"The local people do not want to see more aircraft movements beyond what's permitted."

The future of air travel in the wider district remained deeply uncertain with Christchurch International Airport also buying up large tracts of farmland in Tarras - about 50 kilometres from Queenstown - to investigate the possibility of building an international airport.

Indeed the wider airline and tourism industry had to contend with tough questions about sustainability in the face of rapidly mounting concern over climate change.

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