Wanaka Airport’s aviation business community has gone through the mill with Covid-19.
Operators have downsized with the loss of tourism business, some have been hibernating, and some aviators have left town.
It is not all doom and gloom.
Nasa’s Columbia Science Balloon Programme is back and has signed a new 10-year operating agreement with the local council.
Calum Smith’s aircraft engineering outfit, Twenty24, has purchased the airport’s largest hangar, previously used by the Warbirds and Wheels Museum and before that, the Alpine Fighter Collection.
Twenty24 is continuing to fly the Warbirds flag with its work on three 1930s Staggerwings, an ex-RNZAF Harvard and a DC3, among other projects.
Fingers are crossed for the return of Warbirds Over Wanaka International Airshow in 2024.
So what does Queenstown Airport Corporation’s (QAC) new chief executive Glen Sowry, have in mind for Wanaka Airport now?
To quickly recap, QAC has a $300,000, five-year management contract with the Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) to operate the airport safely, according to aviation regulations. It also manages airport tenancies for the council.
All airport income goes to council ratepayers. QAC was for a very short time, the de facto “owner” of the utility, but the High Court last year set aside QAC’s 100-year lease with the council, on account of irregularities in the council’s public consultation process.
For now, there has been no appetite to revisit ideas about developing Wanaka to take overflow from Queenstown airport, who knows what the future might hold.
Mr Sowry is quite clear: Wanaka is not included in QAC’s new 10-year strategic plan.
“[Queenstown is] not seeking to be a big hub airport. We are in the process of developing our 10-year strategic plan . . . With development in aircraft technology, quieter planes, bigger, narrow-bodied aircraft, this creates opportunities for us over time to grow capacity without spilling demand . . . We are confident in Queenstown we can service the district with air services for the foreseeable future, so Wanaka is not part of the plan,” Mr Sowry said.
Over the past eight months, Mr Sowry has been listening to stakeholders to gain an understanding of the views about Queenstown and Wanaka airports and the council’s past efforts to implement a “dual airport” strategy.
“All decisions around the future shape and role of Wanaka Airport are to be made by the QLDC as the owner.”
Mr Sowry was not working for QAC when the High Court set aside QAC’s 100-year lease but he has met and had a constructive discussion with the Wanaka Stakeholders Group (WSG), which took the case to court.
Wanaka locals were open to increasing regional turbo prop aircraft services, such as those already being used by Sounds Air between Wanaka and Christchurch.
He had also learned some people could support expanding services to large turbo prop aircraft, such as Q300 or ATR aircraft.
Air New Zealand mainly uses a fleet of narrow-bodied A320 or A321 jet aircraft between Queenstown and Wellington, Auckland or Australia, but the WSG position was “very clear around their opposition to jets” in Wanaka, Mr Sowry said.
Electric aircraft technology was advancing quite quickly and in due course could replace short haul turbo props into Wanaka and Queenstown. But there was no quickly developing technology to replace long haul jet aircraft at present, and what existed was in its relative infancy.
Regarding Christchurch International Airport’s proposed international airport at Tarras, Mr Sowry said he believed Dunedin and Invercargill airports were both under-utilised and could be developed for less cost than building from scratch.