What are the safety implications of expansion?

Existing safety concerns at Queenstown Airport would be exacerbated by more than doubling the number and intensity of flights, if allowed by expansion of ZQN’s air noise boundaries.

If the challenges and risks of ZQN described below exist at less than half Queenstown Airport Corporation’s proposed number of flights a year – would our councillors be wise to sign off on a deal to increase them even further?

What would be the impact of even one serious air accident? On the passengers and crew, our community, our environment, our health system, our economy and reputation? Growth at all costs – based on airline and QAC demands – is it worth it?

Rating & environmental conditions

During a 2012 court case, retired Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) inspector and Air New Zealand pilot Colin Glasgow, stated that Queenstown has a “Category X” rating in CAA and airline operator circles – the highest rating according to degrees of difficulty. The main contributors to this Category X rating are:

  • The forced proximity of aircraft because of the narrow flight corridors in this mountainous terrain.
  • The 90m grassed run-off areas at both ends of the runway being at the absolute minimum permissible length (240m is the generally recognised industry standard).
  • The risk of ice build-up on aircraft wings during bad weather, dramatically reducing their aerodynamic performance. This means that for any given airspeed, the aircraft is less able to fly safely.
  • Being situated at the confluence of three mountain valleys, ZQN is subject to strong wind shear. This can subject an aircraft to violent updrafts and downdrafts and also abrupt changes to its horizontal movement.


The following incident had the potential for mass casualties.  Queenstown’s unique airspace makes ZQN far riskier for such incidents than any other airport in New Zealand.

This pilot’s report, provided by the Civil Aviation Authority, concerns a heavily iced Boeing 737 on approach to Queenstown Airport in 2007 that was forced to conduct a circuit around the airport prior to landing. The aircraft was carrying so much ice and its aerodynamic capability so seriously compromised that the pilots were just able to keep the aircraft airborne using 95% of full power.

How the Civil Aviation Authority see it

CAA annual reports over the last 8 years show a clear trend of increasing concern regarding safety at Queenstown Airport. Tellingly, these same reports make no mention of airspace risk at any other main airport in NZ.

  • We have conducted a comprehensive risk review of air transport operations at Queenstown to help guide the Authority’s regulatory approach to operations at this aerodrome.” CAA 2011/2012 Annual Report.
  •  “The current air surveillance system supporting the air traffic management system is operated by Airways. It consists of primary and secondary radars and a multilateration system based in Queenstown. The current radar system will be at the end of its life by 2021.” CAA 2014/2015 Annual Report.
  •  “Queenstown airspace has a variety of flying activities, mountainous terrain, changeable weather and a high density of traffic; all of which create a challenging operational environment with an increased potential for an accident to occur.”  CAA 2015/2016 Annual Report.
  • Queenstown Operations – We conducted a gap analysis of the effectiveness of current controls, created a stakeholder plan and engaged with stakeholders to precisely define the risks associated with Queenstown operations. Pleasingly, there were no major safety occurrences during the year, and analysis determined that current controls are effective.”  CAA 2016/2017 Annual Report.
  •  “The mountainous terrain, changeable weather and high and constricted density of traffic make Queenstown a challenging area to fly. As such, there is increased potential for accidents to occur.” CAA 2016/2017 Annual Report.
  •  “Aviation accidents in the Queenstown area have the potential to damage New Zealand’s reputation for safe and secure skies, and as a tourist destination, as well as incurring unnecessary social cost.” CAA 2017/2018 Annual Report.
  • And the drum roll for most worrying quote goes to this extract from the CAA’s 2014 Queenstown Airspace Classification Review -“Given that there are now significantly more passengers in the (Queenstown) airspace at any one time than ever before and greater numbers of aircraft than before, the exposure risk of passengers to an airspace safety occurrence has increased markedly”.

Our safety advisor has ensured councillors have this information, with far more detail.

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