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Airline pilot concerns over night flying into Queenstown Airport have been allayed

Thursday 28th January 2016

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Airline pilots have dropped plans to blacklist night flying at Queenstown Airport with their safety concerns addressed by the airport and Air New Zealand.

Air New Zealand announced last night that it will begin evening flights in July subject to regulatory approval, the first of a number of airlines expected to join suit.

The Auckland-based airline will boost flight capacity between Auckland and Queenstown by 15 percent in the 2017 financial year with an additional 100,000 seats.

The Airline Pilots Association said late last year that the $18 million improvements Queenstown Airport was making to the airport, including a wider and better-lit runway, didn’t go far enough.

But association spokesman Dave Reynolds said the pilots have been working closely with Air New Zealand and the airport on a safety case that has developed procedures to deal with their two main concerns – the mountains near the flightpath to and from the airport and the unstable weather patterns in the valley where it’s situated.

Reynolds said they have been using flight simulators to train pilots based on visuals of what the airport will look like when flying in total darkness and updated with the weather phenomenon so “they’ll know what to expect”.

The pilots would still like to see the airport authorities change their minds over a 240-metre overshoot zone at each end of the runway rather than the current 90-metre zone which complies with the regulatory minimum. The extra safety zone was now common internationally, he said.

Reynolds said other union members were also involved in developing a safety case for Jetstar, the discount unit of Australia's Qantas Airways, which has said it’s interested in adding night flights to its Queenstown schedule. The airline said today it was still keen but hadn’t completed its review.

Graham Budd, chief executive of Destination Queenstown – the region’s tourism agency - said Air New Zealand’s decision had been anticipated for a long time and will be a “game-changer” for the region.

He’s expecting Jetstar to follow suit along with Qantas and Virgin Australia, Australia’s second-largest domestic airline, for their trans-Tasman operations.

While the agency hasn’t crunched the numbers on the likely economic boom, Budd estimates it will be millions of dollars.

After-dark flights were first approved at Queenstown Airport in 2014 but the airport first had to commit to the runway upgrade which is due to be completed in April.

“In the first instance it will allow a better visitor experience by making it easier for people to get here and provide more capacity which encourages growth,” Budd said.

Direct tourist expenditure in Queenstown is $1.7 billion a year and it has sustained double-digit growth in tourism numbers and spend in recent years.

The Commercial Accommodation Monitor for November 2015 showed international guest nights in Queenstown were up 16 percent on the previous year to 195,838 for the month, while figures on international monthly spend in Queenstown rose 13 percent in December 2015 on the previous year to 227 per visitor, based on the RTI monthly spend index.

Queenstown Airport Corp acting chief executive Mike Clay said the introduction of evening flights will maximise the airport’s current consented operating hours from 6am to 10pm during the winter months and reduce peak-time pressure on its facilities and services which have been experiencing sustained growth in passenger and traffic volumes.

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