Queenstown night flights deemed safe

QUEENSTOWN: Breathtaking footage coming into Queenstown Airport.
QUEENSTOWN: Breathtaking footage coming into Queenstown Airport.

Night flights at Queenstown Airport, which would usher in "game-changing" trans-Tasman and national tourism accessibility for the resort, could be touching down and taking off by winter 2016.

Currently, and throughout the airport's existence, flights have been limited to daylight hours, with a 10pm cut-off. However, the resort's short winter days mean scheduling any year-round 10pm landing or takeoff has remained unrealistic.

But yesterday, airport chief executive Scott Paterson announced New Zealand's Civil Aviation Authority and its Australian counterpart, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, had accepted a foundation safety case that allowed provisional approval for night flights - pending infrastructure additions, by mid-2016.

Civil Aviation Safety Authority approval was "critical" as it allowed the Australian airlines night flight access, which was crucial to a host of advantages Queenstown would reap from the change, Paterson said.

"We'll be delighted if this is successful, as it will be a game-changer to the tourism economy and a major milestone," he said.

The airport would essentially move to a double shift, creating many new jobs, and morning winter flights, about 7am, could also be on the menu for travellers.

The new flexibility would allow a huge change to travel plans.

"People will be able to fly in on Fridays after work, ski or board for a full day on Sunday, fly home and be at work on Monday morning.

"It would also give business people more flexibility and potentially allow people to base themselves in Queenstown and commute to other main centres for work," Paterson said.

Achieving provisional clearance was the result of two years' collaborative work where commercial considerations had been taken off the table, and safety was the sole driver.

With that achieved, commercial interests were now back under the spotlight, and whether night flights became a reality depended on airlines, Paterson, who was flanked by trans-Tasman airline power players, said.

Representatives of Air New Zealand, JetStar and Qantas remained cautious on committing to any night flights, however, the airport is the fastest-growing in Australasia, with 296,000 international tourist arrivals for the year to March. This figure was up 30 per cent on the rolling total for the previous year. The only discernable blip on the airport's radar seems minor, with domestic arrivals dropping 2.3 per cent from 91,000 in March 2013 to 89,000 in March this year.

Among the anticipated infrastructure to be added are brighter runway lights, and lights on the foothills around the approach to the airport, which would be switched on only as scheduled flights approached or prepared for takeoff. Widening the current runway, boosting required navigation performance capabilities for night flights, and non-physical work such as airport crew training. All up, costs are expected to be $8 million to $10 million.

Community consultation would occur to ease in the changes among residents close to the airport, Paterson said.

Destination Queenstown chief executive Graham Budd was thrilled with what he labelled an "exciting development".

"It is a significant development in supporting the future growth of the visitor market into Queenstown and will enhance the visitor experience."

The Southland Times