Keep talking to your communities

10 Mar 2024

The benefits from a transparent and open community consultation far outweigh the occasionally robust feedback, Queenstown Airport chief executive Glen Sowry says.

At the NZ Airports Hui in October 2023, Glen outlined the airport’s work on a Master Plan and reinforced the importance of taking the community with you.

Investment in bricks and mortar infrastructure was vital, as was genuine engagement and information sharing with those who live close to the airport and those who own it, he said.

Glen, who took up the top job in September 2021, said the leadership team began thinking about a Master Plan, and reshaping the strategic plan, shortly after he joined.

“One of my favourite expressions is, if you’re not sure where you’re going, any road will take you there. So, we set about being really clear about what we are, and equally importantly what we’re not, as an airport.

“We reset our mission and our vision. If you don’t have really clear touchstones, that you can keep reaching out to and touching, you run the risk of losing your way. Our aspiration is to be an innovative airport that people love to travel through and that our community takes pride in.”

The airport focused on three key themes – innovation, customer experience and community.

“We felt very strongly that if we didn’t have those balanced, we weren’t going to get where we needed to go.”

Queenstown Airport released its 10-year strategic plan in September last year, which sets the strategic direction for the company through to 2032.

The Master Plan, now being finalised, is a multi-decade spatial plan to deliver on that, focusing on the infrastructure needed in the coming decade, while making provision for the decarbonisation of aviation and other infrastructure that will be needed beyond 2032.

Glen said that in 2022 the airport bounced back to slightly more than 2.3 million passenger movements, very close to being back to pre-Covid levels. While domestic numbers were a bit down, trans-Tasman movements were a bit ahead, and international flights accounted for about one-third of all traffic.

During the past 10 to 15 years, technology had “fundamentally changed” the way the airport operated, while partnerships with the Civil Aviation Authority and Airways had paid dividends, he said.

“Before that, flying into Queenstown could be unreliable. You weren’t sure if you were going to get in, particularly with low cloud.

“Now, as long as pilots can see the runway at 300 feet above ground level, they can land. That has been a profound change, in the competitiveness and reliability of Queenstown.

“The other thing that happened in the middle of last decade was night flights. Prior to that, daylight really limited operations.”

A series of initiatives in the next decades would bring the Master Plan to life and connect it with the strategic plan, Glen said.

“When we look at the key elements of the Master Plan that considers future aviation, it covers decarbonisation and the best way of enabling us for that. It also reflects that we will operate within our current noise boundaries until 2032.

“We have the physical space to grow. So, we need to think post-2032 and make sure we have the infrastructure and capacity available for decarbonisation and further growth, should that be supported by the community.

“We are somewhat unique in terms of the major airports in that we still have an important and vital general aviation operation sitting alongside scheduled aviation activity. That’s what Queenstown Airport grew from many years ago. It’s a key part of our region’s tourism – the high-value visitors who want to spend big money on experiences.”

A planned parallel taxiway would be a huge step forward to increasing the efficiency of operations by reducing the amount of airborne and ground-based holds, he said.

The airport was also considering installing an Engineering Material Arresting System, which was being built into more than 100 airports mostly in North America and Europe.

“It adds enormous safety to any airport. In the event an aircraft overruns the runway, this engineered material is designed to safely catch the aircraft without any damage. Of the instances that have occurred, there has not been a single life lost or aircraft lost.”

Glen stressed how critical open communication and consultation was with stakeholders, including local residents, CAA, Airways, the three Australian-based carriers as well as Air New Zealand, and their general aviation community.

“We’ve had really strong alignment on infrastructure such as the taxiway and terminal upgrades, and they’ve also challenged us over what we’re doing to ensure we support them.

“Our general aviation (GA) community operates about 36,000 flights a year out of the airport, as well as supporting the community with agriculture, search and rescue, medical services and the like, so they’re a really important part of the social infrastructure of our region.

“We’ve worked closely with GA operators, who have quite divergent views as a community and between each other. But often the subjects and concerns are the same, and we’re getting some really good progress there.”

Major airport shareholder Queenstown Lakes District Council (QLDC) had been firmly of the view the airport had to engage in an open, transparent and genuine way with communities, Glen said.

“How did we go about doing that? When it comes to the community and stakeholders, the district council has an online platform called ‘Let’s Talk’, so we moved the Master Plan consultation process on to their platform, and it was fully transparent.

“It ran for over a month and included five open-ended questions. It was an incredibly open process. The consultation report that came out the other side was almost a phone-book thick and has been published on our website verbatim, with only identifying names removed for privacy reasons.”

More than 230 submissions were received and face-to-face meetings and workshops were held with stakeholders, he said.

“We spoke to more than 500 people at them. I got a damn-good talking to on a number of occasions, but it’s important – you just can’t get around it.

“There was some real gold that came out of those processes, and those were faithfully recorded and fed into the system. Ninety two percent of the respondents in the engagement process were from the region, with the majority of residents, respondents, telling us they felt we got the balance right.

“Out of that we put out a schedule of changes that we’ve been sharing with our major shareholder about the amendments we are going to make to the Master Plan as a consequence.”

Listening and engaging with the community provided a pathway for future generations, future councils, future leaders, future chambers of commerce, future executives and boards from Queenstown Airport to follow.

“People really felt a tremendous sense of pride in the airport. But they also had plenty of advice about what we needed to do better, and gave us really strong confidence about what we need to focus on.

“We‘ve got a lot of work to do, particularly with a view to sustainability and climate change. We are also highly engaged with the destination management plans of Destination Queenstown, Lake Wanaka Tourism and Central Otago, as to how we can facilitate and encourage the spirit of tourism around the South for the benefit of the wider region.

“We also talked about the terminal redevelopment. There’s going to be a reasonably significant expansion, and parts of the terminal will be completely reshaped, reconfigured and in some cases surgically removed and rebuilt to ensure that it is modern and is seismically strong, which is incredibly important in our part of the world.”

The airport’s Master Plan has been endorsed by majority shareholder QLDC and is due to be approved by the airport company board by the end of the year.