Backers of a new international airport at Tarras, near Wanaka, are touting wrong information about its potential, according to critics.

Christchurch International Airport Limited (CIAL) is claiming the population of the wider region as its potential passenger-catchment and says getting wide-body jets into Central Otago via a new facility is vital to avoid future economic and social hardships.

The chief executive of Queenstown Airport, Glen Sowry, calls the claim “absolute nonsense”.

Trying to predict the future economics of air travel could put anyone into a tailspin at present, but confusing the issue, Sowry and others say, are figures and maps created by CIAL that are at odds with the air-travel-related demographics of the area.

In late April, CIAL used the public forum at a Central Otago District Council (QLDC) meeting – a regular session set aside for anyone to bring issues to the council’s attention – to pitch its proposal for a new or “greenfield” international airport at Tarras.

It wasn’t the first such CIAL pitch at a council meeting, and company has also given presentations at business networking groups around Central Otago.

Christchurch City Council and government-owned CIAL hopes to build a 2.2km runway on 750ha of Tarras farmland it bought in 2020 and have an airport operating within about eight years.

Disputed graphics

The project director, Michael Singleton, and economics consultant, Shane Vuletich, presented councillors with a series of graphics containing arguments in favour of the plan and last week CIAL said it stands by the stats.

The portrayal of the capacity – and even the existence – of the four existing airports was one cause of consternation among southern airport chief executives who saw the presentation on the council’s YouTube channel.

The future ability of Queenstown, Invercargill and Dunedin airports to service the region was dismissed by CIAL for their lack of capacity and growth potential and vulnerability to climate change, and Wanaka Airport didn’t even feature on CIAL’s map.

Estimates given in CIAL’s presentation of potential domestic travellers who would use an airport at Tarras included residents of the Queenstown-Lakes District. The figures ignored the existence of Queenstown and Wanaka Airports, which already serve that area, according to Sowry.

“CIAL is claiming the full catchment, which is just wrong. It seems to have ignored the fact that Queenstown Airport exists and serves the needs of the community perfectly effectively.”

A contested graphic presented to Central Otago District Council as part of CIAL’s pitch for a Tarras airport.

And although accommodating jet aircraft at Wanaka Airport has previously met strong community opposition, putting expansion planning on hold, discussions about what could be achievable and acceptable to the community are far from over.

Dunedin Airport chief Richard Roberts also feels the existing air connectivity in Dunedin and the region, and its growth potential, was ignored in the presentation.

“Wanaka Airport was not on CIAL’s map – a consented and operating community-owned airport 20 minutes from its proposed site with the potential to grow, if that’s what Queenstown-Lakes District Council and the community decides it wants,” Robert says.

He thinks the four existing airports in the lower southern region could “easily cater for the forecast growth”.

“Dunedin and Invercargill airports both have surplus capacity. Invercargill has the third-longest runway in New Zealand at 2200m. Dunedin can extend its runway to 2445m. Dunedin Airport also has the ability to upgrade for wide-body operations at a significantly lower cost than building a new airport.”

CIAL’s statement that Dunedin Airport has limited local catchment growth is also disputed.

“Stats NZ has projected the population of Central Otago to increase by 9300 over the next three decades to 31,000, not the 100,000 CIAL is claiming. This growth can easily be serviced by the current airports in the lower-south region. Using the same statistics source as Christchurch used in its presentation, both Dunedin and Queenstown are each forecast to grow by more than the Central Otago District over the period to 2048 – 10,400 for Dunedin, 25,500 in Queenstown and 9300 in Central Otago District.”

All about infrastructure

CIAL says its project is about regional infrastructure and is not driven by local authority boundaries.

“We believe the geographical area we referenced best reflects a growing region and is where new airport infrastructure will be needed in the next 20 to 50 years and beyond,” Singleton says.

Tarras airport project director Michael Singleton. Photo: supplied

Nigel Finnerty, Invercargill Airport’s boss, says wide-body aircraft could be hosted there with “some upgrades” to the terminal and runway. He denies CIAL’s claim that the facility’s growth is limited.

“There are no limits on future local catchment growth. In fact, regional development groups such as Great South are working to drive regional growth married with sustainable development to recognise Southland’s potential.”

Finnerty says Stats NZ is predicting growth of up to 25,000 by 2048 for the airport’s catchment. He thinks capacity for future growth across the south already exists, be it freight or passenger needs.

“Our freight business, particularly high-value, perishable produce such as seafood and fresh products, has increased significantly with the introduction of the Airbus A320 direct jet service to Auckland in August 2019. This type of freight opportunity is only expected to increase as primary production, particularly in the aquaculture and fresh produce space, grows.”

He says Invercargill is already planning 20 to 30 years ahead and with CIAL’s home-city facility acting as the main “gateway”, the existing southern network is capable of providing for future growth.

“The rationale for a fifth airport in the lower South Island is yet to be established. Existing infrastructure is better placed to deliver a long-term, sustainable and ultimately more environmentally friendly service.”

Dunedin’s Roberts enthuses about the prospect of new green technology.

“Aircraft advances are incredibly exciting. Dunedin Airport is committed to supporting and facilitating aviation technology into the future. Electrified regional aircraft are going to play an important part on domestic routes. The future will bring low-emissions air travel requiring a connected network of airlines and airports to enable it,” he says.

“All airports around New Zealand are going to be supporting and facilitating airlines’ future needs. We strongly disagree that the only way to decarbonise the aviation industry is to build a new airport.”

Queenstown Airport boss Glen Sowry. Photo: suppplied

Covid changes everything

Queenstown’s Sowry says CIAL’s population graphics are “factually incorrect” and its shareholder-return claims on investment in a greenfield airport off the mark. However, he concedes the region’s infrastructure has been strained and Queenstown Airport was under pressure four years ago, making the growth debate “front and centre”.

“Covid gave us a hard reset. It’s forced the global aviation and tourism industries to reflect on where to from here.”

Queenstown has doubled its security-screening area, has plans to invest in the terminal building to allow more space and is using the introduction of larger but quieter aircraft such as the A320 and A321neo to respond to growth as it comes.

He objects to CIAL presenting four-year-old Queenstown Airport capacity statements to the CODC meeting last month.

“They seem to have forgotten the world has changed. It has profoundly changed.”

CIAL, however, maintains the quoted statements made by former Queenstown Airport chief Colin Keel in August 2018 are still relevant.

“In 2018, the region was facing well known capacity constraints in the coming decade. Covid has set that back by two to three years. Queenstown Airport, like most airports in New Zealand, is forecasting a return to pre-Covid passenger levels by 2024. Other industry experts say this could occur earlier,” Singleton says.

CIAL claims the annual value to Central Otago of having daily arrivals of international wide-bodied aircraft would be $670 million compared with the $185 million of narrow-bodied craft, thanks to their ability to carry more passengers in fewer planes.

The company, which declines to give the source or calculation method for the figures, is sticking to its guns on the Tarras proposal.

“We have 80 years’ experience at operating New Zealand’s second-largest airport, we are confident there is a prima facie case for a new airport that warrants further exploration and that’s what we’re doing,” Singleton says.

With cherries on top

Summerfruit NZ would welcome the ability to fly fresh fruit direct from Central Otago to overseas markets, says chief executive Kate Hellstrom.

Craig Hall, chair of the Summerfruit Export Council, is also enthusiastic.

“The predominant airfreight product is cherries, with about 4000Mt [metric tons] exported a year, with growth to 10,000MT-plus expected,” Hall says.

The view towards Tarras farmland that could be the location of a new international airport. Photo: Jill Herron

At present, produce is trucked from Central Otago to either Christchurch or Auckland, then airfreighted, an arrangement that will be under pressure within five years.

Whether suitably-connected airlines would choose to fly to Central Otago using wide-body or any other aircraft type would, of course, be up to them – something everyone agrees upon.

Central Otago District deputy mayor Neil Gillespie, who chaired the live-streamed April meeting, says since the sessions were public – albeit via YouTube – there is no issue with a commercial project being aired in a public forum.

If the Tarras project proceeds, the council will deal with associated resource consents for land use, building consents, noise issues and any trade waste and food and liquor licensing, a planning spokesperson confirms.

At this stage, says Gillespie, elected members are simply receiving information and are not being asked to make decisions or form opinions.

He declines to comment on the content of the CIAL presentation, saying “others are better placed to do that”.

Made with the support of the Public Interest Journalism Fund

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