QAC’s Glen Sowry – community engagement, transparency and a foggy crystal ball

We Love Wakatipu Inc interview and commentary, 16 December 2021

There is unlikely to be high enough demand to require expansion of Queenstown Airport’s air noise boundary (ANB) during the next decade.

That’s the conclusion new Queenstown Airport Corporation CEO Glen Sowry reached soon after taking over the reins three and a half months ago.

Reduced passenger demand in the uncertain wake of Covid and the capacity-boosting combination of noise reduction technology and bigger planes persuaded him that pushing against the clear and strong community opposition to ANB expansion was both unnecessary and unwise.

He said that the We Love Wakatipu/Protect Queenstown and FlightPlan2050 websites helped him understand this strong community opposition and the causes for it.

Sowry told We Love Wakatipu that he was employed, in part, to rebuild social licence, improve community engagement and “to drive, lead and shape the strategic direction for the next decade”.

In other words, QAC’s board was open to changing the strategic direction – of growth to meet airline demand, regardless of strong community opposition – that had so harmed its community relationships and social licence over recent years.

In early November, Sowry announced that QAC’s new 10-year strategic plan would reflect what was possible within the existing ANB, recognising strong feedback from most sectors of the community had rejected the level of growth the proposed expansion was proxy for.  The QAC board, he said, was fully behind this change.

He said his crystal ball was “rather foggy,” but agreed that passenger demand was unlikely to revert to 2019 levels for “some time”. QAC documents identify 2024 as the financial year both dividend and passenger numbers will return to something like pre-Covid levels.

Over the past two years, We Love Wakatipu has campaigned to get both QAC and council to acknowledge that QAC’s forecasts arguing for ANB expansion did not include A321neos – according to manufacturers’ specs, 25% larger and considerably quieter than the current fleet of A320s.

Sowry said Air New Zealand has committed to buying 12 A321neos for domestic routes over the next several years and to flying these to Queenstown. We started seeing and hearing them this week, bringing down plane loads of Aucklanders.

It took an official information act request from Protect Queenstown to finally, in April this year, get acknowledgement from QAC that these planes were not factored into their argument for ANB expansion.

We Love Wakatipu and QAC have different perspectives on the impact these quieter and larger planes will have on the need for any eventual ANB expansion.  More research is necessary.

But the point is, the only control that council and our community have over QAC’s (and some of our councillors’) growth aspirations is the ANB. 

We can’t control what kind of planes airlines use to create the noise within the ANB. Quieter, bigger planes mean more planes carrying more tourists can arrive within the approved “bucket of noise” allowed over 24 hours. 

Transparency and accuracy of QACs sound monitoring is therefore vital in terms of ANB expansion being a proxy for growth. Remembering, of course, that technology (especially once we have electric planes flying domestically) will keep getting quieter – and the ANB therefore more capacious.

So, kudos to Sowry for acknowledging that A321neos will be a big part of ZQN’s future and, at a recent Shaping Our Future meeting, committing QAC to measuring their noise profiles on landing and take-off at ZQN.  We trust the science, methodology and results will be made public.

He says noise profiles vary with temperature, wind and topography. Any plane will fly more quietly with a headwind on a cold day. Queenstown’s steep climb path is inherently noisier than a flatter exit.

He said ZQN’s future was as a “destination airport, not a hub”.  QAC’s previous strong narrative had been that ZQN was the hub airport for the lower South Island.

The difference might be in definition. Sowry agrees visitors (and locals) fan out around Fiordland and Central Otago “because this is the most conveniently located access point”.

Sowry says his previous experience as CEO of Housing New Zealand/Kāinga Ora has given him an understanding of how QAC must operate as a council-controlled trading organisation. So, he says, he understands QAC’s legally mandated role is “to meet the objectives, both commercial and non-commercial, of its shareholders as stated in its statement of intent” (SOI).

Of course, the Housing Corporation Act, its purposes, objectives and modus operandi are quite different from the Local Government Act.

Under the LGA, the SOI is the document that is meant to outline the strategic objectives that our councillors have deliberated and decided on for the Airport Corporation to achieve. To date, We Love Wakatipu understands, full council has neither deliberated nor decided on strategic objectives for QAC during the past four years.

These objectives should meet councillors’ legal role and responsibility under the LGA, which is to facilitate the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of our community.

It is councillors’ job to then define the resultant cogent strategic objectives to be contained within the SOI.

These objectives set the broad parameters that act as guardrails within which QAC operates, Sowry says, while also meeting its legal and fiduciary responsibilities (such as financial solvency, health and safety, and lifeline asset provision).

There is no law that requires QAC to make a profit or meet airline demands, despite council agenda claims to the contrary over recent years.

Beyond any commercial objectives set for it by Council under the SOI, two different Acts require it only “to conduct its affairs in accordance with sound business practice” and that the airport “be operated or managed as a commercial undertaking”.

As the majority shareholder of QAC, setting any other commercial objective such as making profit or growing shareholder value is totally under the control of our council.

Sowry acknowledges this. He has had one meeting with the steering group and met with most councillors – he has invited all of them to meet one-on-one. He understands councillors were elected for different mandates and have different perspectives.

However, he might not have known that nine of the 11 councillors promised on the election hustings to oppose ANB expansion, so their mandate is pretty clear. Even if the council leadership team and most councillors have ignored this to date.

Sowry says Housing New Zealand taught him the importance of community engagement and social licence.  “I know what it looks like and feels like when it’s done well.  And what it looks and feels like when it’s not.”

He has been made well aware in his three and a half months on the job that in the last few years, it has not looked or felt good. “We have a good opportunity in the next six months to get it on track.” He is aware that this will involve rebuilding both transparency and engagement.

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