Tarras International Airport: The madness and genius of building it in the tiny Central Otago town [Stuff, 26/12/20]

Boxing Day feature by MIKE WHITE • SENIOR WRITER mike.white@stuff.co.nz

For two years, a small team at Christchurch Airport plotted an audacious strike – to create an international airport in their rival’s backyard. In July, they shocked everyone by announcing they’d bought four properties near Tarras in Central Otago, and wanted long-haul jets flying there within 10 years. Mike White investigates how the company’s coup was kept secret and why the airport raises critical issues for New Zealand.

Malcolm Johns was nervous.

For months, Christchurch Airport had been anonymously buying farmland at Tarras in Central Otago, to build a massive airport right under the nose of their biggest competitor, Queenstown Airport.

Time and again, their agent had gone back to the farmers and upped their offer.

Nearly 400km away, Johns, CEO of Christchurch International Airport Limited (CIAL), was sweating they’d be outed before the last farm was bought and the deal closed.

If Queenstown Airport got wind of what they were doing, they might have tried to thwart it.

And there was a budget they had to stay within, otherwise the project would have become unviable.

To minimise the risk of their plan becoming public knowledge, only a dozen CIAL executives and board members had any idea about the Tarras scheme.

The plan by the company (75 per cent owned by Christchurch City Council, and 25 per cent by the government) was codenamed Project Oscar because in aviation’s phonetic alphabet, Oscar stands for O, and O stood for Otago.

It had been worked on for two years after Air New Zealand and others stated Queenstown Airport couldn’t cope with exploding tourist numbers, and Central Otago needed a new airport.

The idea wasn’t new. Alternatives to Queenstown’s picturesque but short and fraught runway had been mooted for 30 years, four separate reports written, and a new airport at Mossburn got consent, before being overturned on appeal due to noise and visual effects.

Queenstown Airport investigated numerous sites, and Tarras wasn’t in the top two, due to prevailing weather, fog, connection to the region’s towns, and the eye-watering cost. In the end, it decided a new greenfields airport didn’t stack up, and instead opted to increase flights into Queenstown, and develop nearby Wānaka Airport, which it also operated.

But Johns and his team saw things differently. They believed only a brand-new airport would solve congestion problems at Queenstown Airport, and this would be more attractive to airlines flying into tourism’s heartland. It also gave them the chance to claw back passengers lost to Queenstown after Christchurch’s 2011 earthquake, and act as a bulwark against any expansions by Queenstown.

It was something never before done in New Zealand’s aviation scene – stealing into another region, and trying to take their business from them.

All at a time when the country was arguing for fewer tourists, and air travel was vilified as one of the worst culprits for greenhouse gas emissions.

Christchurch’s plan was either ballsy or mad, but until they’d sewn up the land they needed for a 2.2km runway that could handle bigger, wide-body jets (those with two aisles and three sections of seating across) everything was at stake. Adding to Johns’ nerves was knowledge several other consortiums were scouting sites for a new airport.

The indicative site plan for Christchurch International Airport’s proposed airport at Tarras, Central Otago. Image: Christchurch International Airport

Johns remembers he was having dinner with his family in early May when he got a text from his project manager saying they’d reached an agreement with the last landowner they needed. After spending $45 million, they now had 750ha of flat Tarras farmland between the Clutha River and mountains made famous by Shrek the sheep, to build an airport on.

Johns says they were still in limited lockdown, so there were no team celebrations, just relief and excitement they’d reached this first milestone without word leaking out.

He began preparing to announce the project publicly at the end of July. Crucial people were quietly contacted, press releases drafted.

But a week before, Peter Newport, the editor of Queenstown news website Crux, got wind of the land sales and contacted CIAL. “We got sprung,” Johns admits, and the airport hastily issued a public statement confirming the rumours.

Suddenly, the secret of Project Oscar was out, and all hell burst loose.

Read this in full here.

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