Tarras airport stacks up as viable and sustainable [Stuff, 08/12/20]

OPINION: Recently, driving through Central Otago’s golden expanse, I found myself gazing across Tarras, trying to conjure the sight of a freshly developed international airport. I struggled.

Ever since Christchurch International Airport Ltd (CIAL) revealed its grand designs for the fields of Tarras​ in September, I’ve tried to keep an extra open mind, without rushing to judgment.

From the outset, it readily became apparent that compelling arguments were being cultivated on both sides of the divide. And it is a divide – a territorial contest between airport companies for market share of the South Island’s international tourist dollar.

I have huge respect for Queenstown Mayor Jim Boult,​ who I consider New Zealand’s top-performing mayor. He’s outspoken. He fights for his corner, his community and district with relentless passion, smarts and conviction. And he gets results.

But the former chief of CIAL has alarmingly ratcheted up the drama of the Tarras airport debate, by denouncing Christchurch Airport’s behaviour as “predatory” and seeking to force the Christchurch mayor to enter the fray. Boult should know better than that.

Was it just for show? The city council has no direct role in relation to decision-making over the Tarras project. The council’s 75 per cent ownership stake of the airport company is vested within its holdings company. As an independent standalone commercial business, governed by its own board, CIAL strictly operates at arm’s length from the council.

It would be grossly unethical, if not illegal, for mayor Lianne Dalziel​ to go off-piste, lean on CIAL or interfere.

Thursday’s council meeting saw another unedifying floor-show from Extinction Rebellion staging a “die-in” in protest at the Tarras airport proposal. I think they were the same characters who previously played dress-up as dying bumble bees, writhing about on the chamber floor as they railed against glyphosate.​

I admire their versatility as thespians, but do histrionic skits by grown adults really win over hearts and minds?

Many know Tarras from the country store on SH8.
Many know Tarras from the country store on SH8. Image: MARJORIE COOK/STUFF

Sustainable Tarras spokesman Chris Goddard​ slated the airport company for its “silence” and “secrecy”, which seems a bit rich, given he recently had a two-hour, face-to-face meeting with CIAL’s project director.

Goddard seems to think the solution to Queenstown Airport’s constraints is to have international jets fly to Dunedin and Invercargill, with two and three-hour shuttle connections. There’s been nothing stopping airlines from doing that – but they haven’t for obvious reasons. It’s a completely unappealing, onerous notion.

The more I have pondered the Tarras project, the more it stacks up as a viable and sustainable proposition to service the lower South Island’s future tourism needs, with a fit-for-purpose international airport. This is a project that’s thinking about the 2030s, not the 2020s.

Queenstown Airport’s severe capacity problems need no introduction. They’ve tried three times to solve their capacity constraints, only by expanding their own footprint – not relocating. The airport is sitting on a real estate goldmine for the council coffers.

An indicative map of where the new airport at Tarras could be located.
SUPPLIED: An indicative map of where the new airport at Tarras could be located.

Queenstown Lakes District Council has some monumental infrastructure issues to contend with. If I was a local ratepayer, I would be urging Jim Boult’s council to unlock the value of that land to generate revenue far beyond the return it pockets from its airport company shareholding.

CIAL’s Tarras project director, Michael Singleton,​ says that climate change plays a major role in the company’s decision-making. “How to best deliver future air services to the South Island in a sustainable, low-carbon way is a complex issue and one we need to develop solutions for. In the early 2030s we will see new aircraft and fuels, which will lead to more sustainable aviation.”

A future Tarras airport would be a transformational boon for the wider Central Otago region, just minutes from Wanaka and booming Cromwell, and an hour’s drive to Queenstown. Admittedly, the narrow access route of Kawarau Gorge probably poses as the Tarras proposal’s biggest drawback.

But Tarras does provide a much stronger national solution to the lower South Island’s future air traffic needs and opportunities than the existing Queenstown Airport ever can.

It’s early days, but the rationale for Tarras passes my sniff test. Maybe in time, as a goodwill gesture, CIAL could offer the Queenstown council a shareholding stake in a Tarras subsidiary company, to help clear the air.

This is a project that’s thinking about the 2030s not the 2020s, writes columnist Mike Yardley.
STUFF/STUFF.CO.NZThis is a project that’s thinking about the 2030s not the 2020s, writes columnist Mike Yardley.

Read this on the Stuff website here.

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