Queenstown Airport boss Glen Sowry sees traffic move from bust to boom

Queenstown Airport boss Glen Sowry started work in the depths of the last nationwide lockdown and his first days on the job were surreal.

The planes had disappeared.

“For my first three days at the airport it was like a scene out of a western movie with tumbleweed blowing down the street.”

While flights from Wellington and Christchurch were restored relatively quickly, it was the re-opening of the Auckland border that was like “the flick of a switch” and domestic traffic has been restored to pre-pandemic levels or better.

The airport will welcome 46 flights on Christmas Eve and in the month from mid-December to mid-January 160,000 people will travel through Queenstown.

“From a domestic perspective that’s stronger than it was pre-pandemic. In fact, July was our strongest ever domestic month.”

Aucklanders account for about 70 per cent of domestic arrivals and, when they are permitted to fly, Kiwis are more than making up for the absence of international tourists who took up around 15 per cent to 20 per cent of domestic seats.

Passengers from Wellington and Christchurch provided a lifeline during the period that Auckland was locked down for 107 days but were not enough to sustain the commercial performance at the airport.

While this week’s Government announcement of the delay in quarantine-free international travel was “incredibly frustrating” for the aviation sector, Sowry said there was no sign that the spread of Covid around the country and the threat of the Omicron variant were affecting bookings.

“They’re still going strong. I think Queenstown is very mindful of the importance of the visitor economy and particularly being able to maintain links with Auckland, and so I think that’s reflected in incredibly high vaccination rates down here.”

It was great having domestic flying back so strongly.

“Let’s hope that remains the case is incredibly important for tourism and aviation businesses to at least get a bit of oxygen in the system.”

Coming home to aviation

Sowry was most recently chief executive of Metlifecare and prior to that head of Housing New Zealand (now Kāinga Ora). He also spent a decade at Air New Zealand in senior management roles, including three years as general manager operations leading a large team across New Zealand, Australia and the Pacific Islands.

He said the Queenstown Airport job was like “coming home” to aviation.

“I have really enjoyed the opportunity to come back and work in aviation, which is a sectorI have a real affinity with.”

He’s not the only former Air NZ executive making the switch from airlines to airports – Carrie Hurihanganui is moving next month to the top job at Auckland Airport, which has a 25 per cent stake in Queenstown Airport.

It was an “incredibly difficult” time for everyone in the aviation sector, said Sowry.Queenstown Airport in the year to June 30 suffered a 40 per cent fall in total revenue to $27.8 million and after-tax profit tumbled 91 per cent to $1.6m.

Sowry has bought a house in Queenstown – amid stiff competition from other Aucklanders relocating – and says the link between the two centres is getting stronger, reinforcing the need for air connectivity.

Pre-Covid, the domestic market made 70 per cent of aircraft movements and transtasman flights the remaining 30 per cent.

Australians wouldn’t return until they could enter Queenstown without any MIQ or self-isolation.

Sowry is confident they will come back in big numbers with the town well placed as a short-haul flight away from the big Australian cities for holidaymakers who may be reluctant to take long-haul holidays as the pandemic stretches into its third year.

“All of the indications we’ve had are that Queenstown remains a very attractive and strong destination for them and they’re all itching to get back here as soon as they’re able.”

The airport had strong commitments from the transtasman airlines, Air New Zealand, Virgin Australia and Qantas.

“With different variants swirling around the world, there will continue to be a level of caution around long-haul travel and I think destinations like Queenstown, which has got the highest vaccination rates in the country, has all of the same attractions and appeal that it always had, but is also a safe destination and is very well positioned to attract that Australian market.”

The airport was also benefiting from Air New Zealand’s deployment of international Airbus A321neo planes on its domestic route. The planes have 25 per cent more capacity and are quieter, critical at Queenstown where aircraft noise is a hot issue.

Sowry said the loss of European, North American and Asian visitors was hurting though with high-value aviation sightseeing businesses suffering.He shares concerns about the risk of international airlines pulling back or out of New Zealand if uncertainty over borders continues for too long.

Breathing space

Sowry said Queenstown Airport was nearing capacity just as Covid-19 hit.

“The terminal itself was under pressure, particularly the screening area which was simply not copingat peak times.”

In the past 12 months, a construction programme had doubled the size of the security-screening area and it will open early next year.

“That will materially improve the ability to flow passengers much more smoothly through screening which has been a pain pointand we’re also working with Air New Zealand to move access to the Koru Lounge through the air side, which was another thing that caused congestion.”

Sowry said the airport was midway through a 10-year strategy reset and will be engaging and consulting with shareholders (the Queenstown Lakes District Council owns 75 per cent) and stakeholders next year.

“That’s looking at the noise boundaries, what capacity we can be able to deliver in support within those noise boundaries, what investment we’re going to need to make with terminal expansion and how we’re going to configure the airfield more generally, particularly around the location of general aviation operators,” he said.

Christchurch Airport has a long-term plan to develop a big international airport about 90km away at Tarras which would provide competition for Queenstown.

Sowry says “ultimately what happens an hour and 10 minutes away from here that will be a decision for the community and others to shape” but Queenstown’s location gave it a geographical advantage and with landing technology was a reliable all-weather airport.

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