Wanaka airport expansion could be "own goal" for Q'town

by Mark Sinclair - Feb 20, 2020


Mark Sinclair lives in Wanaka and is deputy chair of Wanaka Stakeholders Group Inc.  Opinions expressed in this article are his own. Crux has approached both the Queenstown and Wanaka Chambers of Commerce to invite them to supply or source a balancing opinion piece.

Following significant pushback from Queenstown residents in mid 2018, QAC and QLDC are pursuing a dual airport strategy to expand ZQN’s air noise boundary and develop a jet airport near Wanaka, at Luggate.  At first glance, it’s a great idea for Queenstown - after all, Wanaka should “share the load”.  Ultimately, we’re in this together because overtourism and accelerated growth will impact us all.  But on closer inspection, a jet airport in Wanaka could turn out to be a poisoned chalice for those living in the Wakatipu basin. 

Protect Wanaka's Deputy Chair Mark Sinclair

Debate about the future of jet services to the Southern Lakes is raging on both sides of the Crown Range.  In Queenstown, there is ongoing significant community pushback against QAC’s airport noise boundaries expansion plans.  In Wanaka, the community has mobilised against plans for the development of a jet airport where the town’s community airport currently stands, a stone’s throw from Luggate.

Six months ago, in response to community pressure and a looming election, Mayor Boult announced “a pause” to both parts of QAC’s plan, until  “the wellbeing of the people” was brought into the conversation.  By all accounts, the community consultation has hit bad turbulence within the last week, with multiple community groups and even an elected QLDC Councillor pointing to significant failings in the process, and claiming that the impact reports will likely be biased or even predetermined.  The perception is certainly that while the process is fraught with issues, QLDC will still try to use the reports to push on with expansion in Queenstown and development in Wanaka.

Some in Queenstown have expressed relief that Wanaka might “share the burden” of jets to the Southern Lakes.  I had multiple conversations last week with people in Frankton, Shotover Country and Kelvin Peninsula, who all to some degree or other apologetically suggested that Wanaka should pick up some air traffic slack.  Everyone I spoke to was feeling exhausted by the constant intrusion of jets in their Wakatipu lives, and also expressed their frustration at the consequences of more and more people arriving into Frankton - whether it be traffic jams, concerns of overtourism or the obvious environmental impacts.  So, Wanaka, take your fair share.

Fair enough, and here’s where the irony kicks in.  Whilst a new jet airport 51 kilometres away would undoubtedly cut some slack for jet and congestion-weary Queenstown residents in the short term, it would almost certainly make matters worse for you all in the long run - and at a level most people don’t currently understand.

Brace yourself for eye-watering growth projections

In their March 2018 report commissioned by QLDC, consultancy firm MartinJenkins (yes, you have heard that name many times this week) concluded that “infrastructure investment is needed to maintain Queenstown’s international visitor experience and sustain tourism growth.”  The title of the report “Sustaining Tourism Growth in Queenstown” should have been accompanied by a spoiler alert.  Given these conclusions two years ago, it is likely that the Council’s reports MartinJenkins are working on now will again point the compass toward the growth curve in tourist numbers and extol their value to regional and national economies. Hence claims that Martin Jenkins can’t provide objective impact assessments on airport growth - their natural lens is growth-oriented.

Their 2018 Tourism Growth report paints Queenstown as the country’s honeypot of tourism, claiming that people who visit Queenstown are likely to then visit other parts of New Zealand, and spend money there.  So for the benefit of tourism businesses, those who benefit indirectly from tourists and the country as a whole, MartinJenkins recommends sustained growth in Queenstown tourism, fuelled by stronger infrastructure, including transport networks, and of course including airport upgrades.  Hmmm ... what was that about possible predetermination?

QAC’s own growth projections found in its 2017 Queenstown Airport 30 Year Master Plan Options report paint a breath-taking picture of tourism growth. In five years from now, QAC is projecting that we’ll have 3.2 million passenger movements into Queenstown (currently 2.4 million).  And two decades later, in 2045, 7.1 million air passenger movements into the Queenstown Lakes District.  Put another way, that’s almost three times as many flights as Queenstown now accommodates.  QAC’s CEO, Colin Keel, recently confirmed that Queenstown Airport’s growth is “slightly ahead of these projections”, so growth may even be faster than this.

What do these numbers actually mean?

QAC has recently acknowledged that 7.1 million passenger movements through Queenstown Airport might be unsustainable and proposed that 5 million passenger movements a year could strike a sustainable balance for Queenstown. But that was when they were just looking at Queenstown Airport by itself as the gateway to the Queenstown Lakes District.

Wanaka's current airport - big changes on the horizon?

It now looks like the dual airport strategy and extensions to the existing terminal, Queenstown Airport could end up being capped at 3.2 million passenger movements - certainly that’s what QAC documentation suggests.  Logically, this leaves 3.9 million passenger movements to fall to the new jet airport planned for Wanaka within the next two and a half decades.  This would eventually make Wanaka Airport over one and a half times as busy as Queenstown Airport is today .  This would perhaps explain QAC’s land grab, which has resulted in Wanaka Airport now having a footprint twice the size of Queenstown Airport, all of it owned or controlled by QAC.

It’s clear what this would mean for Wanaka.  But let’s just pause and reflect what this means for Queenstown. 

  • First, in order to “cater” for their projected growth in passenger movements before jets can land in Wanaka, QAC would need to continue to increase passenger movements, and by their projections the annual numbers would go up by another 800,000 within five years - that’s roughly an additional 3,053 flights in or out of Frankton a year - or 58 more per week than today. That represents lots of additional jets in our airspace, even before there are jets in Wanaka.
  • But wait, there’s more! By 2045 (using QAC’s passenger movement projections and Queenstown’s average number of people on flights for 2019, which includes international flights) there would be another 14,885 jet movements in or out of the district each year.  Presumably they are all heading to Wanaka, based on ZQN’s average plane loadings, that’s around 40 flights per day.  To make things worse, if there are no international jets coming to Wanaka as has been suggested by Mayor Boult contradicting announcements by QAC, the number of flights will rise even more, likely almost double (as domestic flights carry way fewer passengers on average).  So we’re talking in excess of 60 flights a day in or out of Wanaka.

Cue the unintended consequences of jets into Wanaka.

At these projected numbers, that’s close to the equivalent of another two million people arriving and then leaving, via jets at Wanaka (as Auckland is said to be the primary market).  Another two million people visiting the Southern Lakes each year.  But most of these additional people landing at Luggate would be destined for Wanaka, right?


According to QLDC, some 15-20% of current passenger movements in or out of Queenstown Airport “belong” to Wanaka and the Upper Clutha.  They maintain that some 400,000 passenger movements are attributable largely to Wanaka residents and visitors.  That number is neither proven nor agreed but even if it were a reasonable estimat (and even if we take the upper end at 20%) it would mean that on average Wanaka residents would take around 22 flights per year, each.  That’s every adult or child doing 11 return trips.  Most Wanaka residents, myself included, would call these figures absurd.

The link between the growth of Queenstown and Wanaka airports could have far ranging and unforeseen consequences.

But let’s just assume that QLDC are correct with those figures - just for a moment - and we’re therefore factoring in Wanaka accounting for the traffic it “produces”.  And let’s then extrapolate those numbers out to QAC’s 2045 projections for passenger movements into the region, with Wanaka “taking its share”.  On that basis, of the 3.9 million passenger movements into Wanaka Airport, up to 780,000 would be attributable to Wanaka residents and visitors.  Even allowing for this fanciful level of local demand, this would leave an additional 3.12 million passenger movements - roughly 1.5 million additional visitors - landing in Wanaka and destined straight to Queenstown or onwards to Milford Sound.

Let’s just let that sink in.  On top of the existing number of visitors, imagine another 400,000 people landing in Queenstown each year within five years, AND THEN add a good proportion of the 1.5 million extra people per annum popping over the Crown Range (or whipping up the Kawarau Gorge) to spend time in Queenstown or beyond each year, by 2045.

Fanciful thinking, or rediculous maths?  Too much focus on Queenstown as a destination?  Scaremongering?   No, as it turns out. 

  • First, this is based on QAC’s own projections for the region and limitiations at ZQN.
  • Secondly, Auckland International Airport Limited, 24.99% owners in QAC, and about to build a second runway at Auckland, have confirmed that their strategy is to promote Queenstown heavily. They’ll fly international visitors into Auckland, and then send them south to Queenstown.  A recent version of QAC’s Statement of Intent records: “AIAL will continue its own route development into markets such as the US, China, South East Asia and South America that cannot support direct flights to Queenstown due to aircraft size. Promotions will feature Queenstown and promote passengers travelling through AIAL to Queenstown on domestic carriers.”  Of course, they might need to land at Wanaka and catch a bus.  This quite telling narrative in the Statement of Intent has subsequently been watered down, but why wouldn’t AIAL promote Queenstown like this to increase shareholder value and support their strategic goal of 40 million passenger movements through Auckland Airport by 2040? (source here). 
  • This also lines up with the repeated insistence from some that “demand” for flights to Wanaka is really driven by the Auckland to Wanaka route.

Is this the “vision” for our future we want our elected Councillors to enable?

This is the future that QAC is aiming to enable by driving forward with plans to “cater” for its own growth projections, and the growth plans of its Auckland shareholder.  With its unwavering focus on growth at almost any cost, it is the future which many say QLDC is on track to approve.  Yes, QAC’s 7.1 million target is for 2045, but that’s only the time it takes for a baby born tomorrow to graduate from University, and it could well happen faster than projected.  That time will pass in a flash.  These major infrastructural projects don't happen with the wave of a fairy godmother's wand - it will mean decades of construction, congestion, noise and pollution.

Wanaka's unspoilt and special character is at risk from airport and tourism expansion according to Mark Sinclair

So, dear friends in Queenstown, we’re not keen on QAC getting extended air noise boundaries in your fine town - we can already see the issues that you cope with day to day.  Most of the people I speak to in Wanaka wouldn’t wish that on anyone. And selfishly, the issues you are facing affect us when we come to Queenstown for business or pleasure, which is often, and are already spilling over into the Upper Clutha. 

Both Queenstown and Wanaka are struggling to keep up from an infrastructure perspective.  With the projected growth in residents, that isn’t going to improve.  Groups of us on either side of the Crown Range are arguing with Council for better infrastructure, more services, a clearer plan and more common sense.  But throw in a new jet capable airport in Wanaka, and chances are neither the Wakatipu Basin nor the Upper Clutha will ever catch up on infrastructure needs.

As stated at the outset, I completely understand why it might seem good to get Wanaka to “take its share”.  But build a jet capable airport near Wanaka, and the impacts back on Queenstown will likely cause the overtourism equivalent of an own goal.  Be careful what you wish for - for us, and for yourselves - as the law of unintended consequences has sharp teeth.




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