Editorial: An airport that stays up late

Queenstown is famed for its nightlife, though its airport slumbers indolently and unhelpfully during the hours of darkness.

This has been in the name of safe flying, to the point where Boeing 737 pilot Roderick Gunn, who took off in the gloom in 2010, was prosecuted in a high-profile case for a marginal yet clear, breach.

Sentencing judge Kevin Phillips cited the risk of tragedy and criticised the pilot's "arrogant" belief that his experience and abilities would overcome rules of law.

Fair criticism, that. But the case for using infrastructure and technological developments to change the rules without compromising safety has now been accepted.

The tourist town and wider district's wellbeing has long suffered from the lack of connectivity with the wider world, so news that civil aviation authorities in New Zealand and Australia have accepted a foundation safety case for night flights should be welcomed emphatically.

Just not so excitedly that the provisos are regarded as mere fine print. The approval to this point is essentially an acceptance that what's planned could work.

There's still the small matter of coming up with the goods and the "just do it" Nike slogan has no place in that process.

Rather, there must be excruciating diligence from the Queenstown Airport Corporation and the airlines - Air New Zealand, Qantas and Jetstar - that have backed the idea.

So far so good, we grant you. To have obtained the approvals is no small feat.

However, now it's far from a matter of convincing the public that safety is not an issue. If anything it's the reverse - the assurance must be that safety is, and will remain, the big issue and be to the fore of every decision made, every plan enacted, every piece of workmanship checked and, as much as possible, every contingency considered.

They have a couple of years to get the 66 infrastructure and technology improvements in place for the flights to be allowed from winter 2016.

Much of it is obvious. There's nothing terribly counter-intuitive about the need for guiding lights on the foothills around the approach, brighter runway lights, and a wider runway.

More inscrutable, to the public, is the detail of "boosting required navigation performance capabilities for night flights". It's widely understood that technology already plays an important role in flights into the airport, particularly during times of limited daytime visibility, but the public has a responsibility to itself to scrutinise the details of what's proposed - particularly the areas where technology and human judgment might jostle.

Of course the commercial imperative does exist too. The airlines have yet to commit to night flights. But to do so does appear to make commercial sense, particularly given the alluring prospect of someone in Sydney being able to fly out after work on a Friday, enjoy the weekend, and fly back on Sunday evening. The attractions of the town and wider region will be much more conveniently in reach.

The Southland Times