Queenstown and Wanaka unite: no more noisy jets

Who should decide how many more tourists fly into Queenstown and Wanaka? Journalist and former district councillor, Cath Gilmour, argues that local residents and not the airlines should have the final say.

Opinion: Queenstown Lakes Mayor Jim Boult has made it very clear that he believes Queenstown Airport must remain in its current location, despite vociferous opposition to its planned expansion.

Assuming this is indeed the most strategically and commercially sound long-term location for ZQN – though no other options have been tested - the community consensus limiting its growth to the current noise boundary must apply.

This consensus needs to be reflected in Queenstown Airport Corporation’s Statement of Intent (SOI) – the primary tool by which communities, through their elected representatives, direct and govern Council Controlled Trading Organisations (CCTO) such as QAC.

So far, it is not. As the packed public forum at a recent Queenstown Lakes District Council meeting indicated.

Mayor Boult tried to defuse heat over QAC’s plans to expand Queenstown and Wanaka airports with a 10 minute scripted speech focused on pushing pause, with the promise of a “fresh approach” from a council “now seriously committed to strategic growth management.”

There was scepticism his words were spin aimed at re-election in two months, and a sense that both council and community have been hijacked by QAC.

Now is the time for the council to take command on our community’s behalf – because as controlling, 75.01% shareholder of this CCTO, this is its legal responsibility under the Local Government Act, as advised by a senior QC with decades of experience and expertise in this area.

A year ago, QAC received a 1500-signature petition and more than 1500 submissions, 92.5 percent in opposition, to its Queenstown Airport noise boundary expansion plan to allow it to more than double passenger numbers.

Suddenly, the reality of those squiggles on the air noise boundary map had hit home. A plane arriving or leaving every four minutes during peak hours. Five times as many properties - almost 4000 - losing development rights and requiring mechanical ventilation so they could hear each other or get to sleep.

We don’t want more congestion. More infrastructural logjams and costs on a small ratepayer base to deal with the rental cars, poos, rubbish and other demands of millions more short stay, low spending tourists facilitated by cheap flights and package deals.

And we don’t want the fundamental strategic choices of the council and our communities – such as how far, how fast and in what direction we grow – taken over by the mainly Auckland domiciled airport company board and its profit-driven desire to meet every airline's demands.

Why should it be cheaper to fly to Queenstown than Dunedin or Invercargill? They have the space, facilities and desire to absorb many more flights.

Last October, QAC said it had listened and would instead advance Wanaka Airport expansion plans and other initiatives “before progressing its noise change proposal to the next stage”. Note the quiet qualification - it let locals think we had won the war, rather than just this temporary reprieve.

That went down like a tonne of bricks in Wanaka. The Wanaka Stakeholders Group now has thousands of members clearly saying jet aircraft are not welcome.

Suspicion abounds that the $300-400 million price tag QAC touts for upgrading Wanaka’s Airport – more than twice the airport infrastructure value of Queenstown Airport – will require far more flights to justify than they want. QAC’s Statement of Intent suggests an overflow of some  two million annual arrivals if Queenstown Airport can’t expand.

In 25 years living in Queenstown, as a journalist and former three-term district councillor, I have never seen such united opposition (or support) for anything, much less unity on both sides of the Crown Range.

Despite this clarity of community will, or perhaps because of it, cynical games are being played behind corporate and council smoke screens.

The next step was to hijack the annual SOI process. By law, the council’s strategic objectives for QAC, both commercial and non-commercial, must be included in the Statement of Intent. Every year previously, they have been. This year, there are no objectives listed. So there are no specific strategic objectives to either guide QAC behaviour or measure it by.

Councillor feedback was cleverly channelled into non-binding, non-public workshop discussions and individual emails. So invisible, even under official information legislation.

There has been no public statement of councillors’ strategic objectives for QAC - we understand there isn’t any such cohesive statement. Even the March letter of expectation to QAC was written by the chief executive, with no input from councillors.

Then the final SOI introduced, for the first time, specific wording to enable expansion of the airport noise boundaries - and commitment to being a “demand driven” public infrastructure business. Talk about thumb your nose at political and community input.

It is for Queenstown Lakes District Council’s community, as the 75.01% controlling owner of QAC, to decide whether we want to be the drive-through McDonalds or “sit down and stay a while” restaurant of tourism. Whether the 3.6 million tourists QAC wants to deliver to our airports every year is too many.

The Local Government Act makes clear  QAC’s corporate strategic objectives as stated in the SOI should be driven by the interests and aspirations of the community it serves – not by airline demand.

That means SOI objectives must include making no moves to expand ZQN air noise boundaries or to introduce jets to Wanaka airport. It also means giving greater weight to climate change mitigation, consistent with the council’s climate emergency declaration.

It would remain the exclusive domain of QAC’s Board and senior management as to how airline demand is managed and the airport remains profitable within these unambiguous parameters.

Contrary to Mayor Boult’s assertion during his speech at the public meeting, QAC is not legally compelled as a CCTO to facilitate growth at any cost. Quite the contrary.

The airport company admits in its SOI it can be profitable within existing air noise boundaries. Endless growth and externalising costs to the community is no longer an acceptable business paradigm. Other airports, such as Amsterdam’s Schiphol, show how successful airport businesses can be run with caps in place.

Mr Boult warned residents that pulling the reins on QAC “could impact future dividends”. Yes it could. Managing demand by raising landing fees, without additional capex, would increase profits and therefore ratepayer dividends.

Remember, QAC sold Auckland International Airport 24.99 percent of its shares, without informing its 100 percent owner, the council, back in 2010. This act is cited as a case study of how not to run a CCTO.

So suspicion about our community and council being hijacked by QAC has deep foundations and the Mayor’s speech offered an inadequate guarantee of appropriate and legally required action once the election is over.

That’s where proper process, which commits the council to act as it’s legally required, comes in.

Proper process is particularly vital when the Mayor is chair of the board of Queenstown Lakes’ largest tourism company, Wayfare group, the parent company of Real Journeys, Go Orange, Cardrona Alpine Resort (bidding to buy Treble Cone), Canyon Brewery and the International Antarctic Centre.

In governance, it is the perception of potential conflict of interest that is vital.

Will we see commitment to real action and transparency from councillors and the mayor at the council's next scheduled meeting, on August 26?

Certainly, council candidates can expect to be asked for their statement of intent about controlling airport expansion plans.

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