From airstrip to airport - the evolution of Queenstown Airport.
Celebrating 85 years of aviation pioneers
Queenstown Airport celebrated its 85th birthday in 2020. Queenstown Airport was founded by the community for the community and remains majority community-owned to this day. Back in 1935, the airstrip was established ‘out of town’ on the Frankton Flats. Fast forward to today and Frankton looks very different. The airport is no longer ‘out of town’. A vibrant mix of commercial and residential communities has developed over the years in Frankton and surrounding areas. Through the decades, the airport has evolved from airstrip to aerodrome to the international airport that it is today.
The terminal building was built in 1964 and has undergone several expansions over the years as the airport and associated businesses have grown with the region - to cater for sustained growth in both visitor numbers and the resident population.
Air connectivity to Queenstown Lakes is critical given our remote location. The airport is a lifeline utility and plays a key role in facilitating essential services to the district. In the case of a natural disaster or crisis, Queenstown Airport would support Civil Defence New Zealand in the response.
Queenstown Airport is now the fourth busiest airport in the country by passenger numbers and services four commercial airlines, commercial general aviation (small fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters) and private jets. Over time, scheduled airline services have moved from ATR aircraft (68-seater turboprops) to predominantly jet operations (A320s/Boeing 737s with 160-180 seats) fitted with Required Navigational Performance. In 2020 there are 80 businesses operating and many hundreds of people working at Queenstown Airport. The airport is a home to a thriving general aviation community supporting diverse employment options and facilitating world-class visitor experiences. Queenstown and Wānaka airports are estimated to have contributed about $526 million to the Queenstown Lakes district GDP in 2019.
If you have images or stories to share about the history of Queenstown Airport, we'd love to hear from you.
Why we fly
To see and hear stories about the people that make the region's aviation history so special and contribute so much to our community check out the ‘Why we fly' series of short videos.
1935: Queenstown Airport was first granted its licence to operate by the Civil Aviation Authority on 14 August 1935.
1937: The Frankton Aerodrome Board was established in December 1937, made up of representatives from the Lake County, Borough of Queenstown and Borough of Arrowtown (it was disbanded in 1958).
1938: In anticipation of new airfield use, Queenstown-Mount Cook Airways Ltd was formed in October 1938 by the Wigley family and secured a licence to operate from the newly prepared Queenstown Aerodrome.
1939: To 31 March 1939, Queenstown-Mount Cook Airways had carried a total of 719 passengers on 219 flights.
1940: By early 1940, due to the impacts of World War II, all civilian flying ceased. The airport gates were erected in 1940 to mark the Centennial of New Zealand (1840-1940).
1946: Post-war, in December 1946, Bill Hewett began charter operations from Queenstown, calling his company Southern Scenic Air Trips. Hewett was soon joined by other former servicemen, Tex Smith, Fred ‘Popeye’ Lucas and Barry Topliss, and the business was renamed Southern Scenic Air Services. Southern Scenic was based at Frankton, operating out of the old Frankton Jockey Club buildings, and developed a range of operations.
1950s: By the 1950s, commercial flights in and out of the airport were commonplace, with the majority going between Queenstown and Milford Sound. Southern Scenic introduced the first scheduled air service from Queenstown to Dunedin on 17 July 1950 and prepared the first airfield at Milford Sound, operational from May 1952. Pioneering regional airlines Southern Scenic Air Services, Ritchie Air Services, West Coast Airways, Tourist Air Travel and Mount Cook Airlines introduced scheduled services, scenic flying, floatplane flying, supply drops, agricultural work, scheduled services, float planes and tourist work. From the mid-1950s to the early 1970s, Dominies were the most commonly used aircraft for scenic, scheduled and charter work at Queenstown Airport.
1964: Mount Cook Airlines secured a licence to fly its DC-3 aircraft into Queenstown, and the Frankton Aerodrome was extended to accommodate these larger aircraft. This included the opening of the first small terminal building and lengthening the grass runway to 1500m. The first flight was on 3 February 1964 and carried about 30 passengers and 2 crew from Christchurch.
1968: The introduction of Mount Cook’s new turbo-prop Hawker Siddeley 748 aircraft led to an upgrade of the main runway, including sealing and extension to 1,341m. The area around the terminal was also sealed.
1968: On 14 October 1968, the Hawker Siddeley started operating between Christchurch and Queenstown, carrying 42 to 58 passengers. In 1968, Queenstown Airport bought a specialised fire appliance appropriate for use on an aerodrome.
1969: Public demand for services to and from Queenstown was increasing and work began on plans to expand the airport terminal and amenities available.
1973: Construction of a new terminal building with cafeteria, baggage claim area, and booking area, and a car park began in January.
1974: Queenstown Airport’s updated terminal was completed and ready to welcome in a new era of travel, tourism and connectivity for the local community.
1980s: In the mid-1980s, Newmans Air began a short-lived service flying Dash 8 turbo-prop aircraft.
1989: Ansett New Zealand started the first jet aircraft flights (BAe 146 Whisper Jet) into Queenstown Airport.
1992: Air New Zealand introduced Boeing 737-200 flights into Queenstown. The aircraft were fitted with hush kits to reduce the affect of aircraft noise on nearby residents.
1995: Queenstown Airport welcomed its first international flight 1 July 1995 (Air New Zealand from Sydney), connecting Australians to New Zealand’s home of alpine adventure in time for the ski season.
1998: Queenstown proved to be a popular destination, leading to the extension and overlay of the runway between 1995 and 1998 to enable jet services directly into Queenstown from around New Zealand and Australia.
1996: A new control tower was built in 1996 and planning for a new terminal building began.
2001: The overlay of the 1,911m runway was completed and the new $6 million terminal building opened.
2003: Planning to treble the size of the terminal building under way.
2005: Qantas began direct services to Queenstown from Australia in July 2005.
2007: This was a year of activity. The terminal building was expanded as part of a $33 million upgrade. In the same year, the aircraft apron hard stand area was expanded to 10,000m, a new fire appliance was purchased and a new fire station building constructed. The car park was expanded and border and security controls upgraded. Navigation systems were also upgraded to minimise flight disruption.
2009: We welcomed Jetstar and Pacific Blue (now Virgin Australia) to Queenstown in June and September respectively.
2010: The airport’s runway was resealed in a $5 million project, a jet blast fence was installed at the end of Runway 05 and a new Baggage Makeup Unit opened. Auckland International Airport Limited (AIAL) acquired a 24.99% shareholding in Queenstown Airport Corporation Limited. The Queenstown Lakes District Council remains the majority shareholder at 75.01%.
2011: A new crosswind runway and onsite fuel farm opened. Construction of the $10 million Runway End Safety Area (RESA) was completed. About 850,000 cubic metres of material was brought in for the RESA – about 450,000 cu m of that from Remarkables Park, with the remainder coming from the Shotover Delta and airport land.
2012: Airways (Air Traffic Control) introduced Performance Based Navigation (PBN) and Required Navigation Performance-Authorisation Required (RNP AR) technology. This has dramatically improved the reliability of jet services and increased airspace capacity and operational efficiency at the airport.
2014: New Zealand’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) approved the airport’s evening flights safety case, allowing airlines to apply for individual certification to fly in and out of Queenstown after dark. From 2015 to 2017, $20 million was spent upgrading the airfield as part of the infrastructure requirements to host after-dark flights. The improvements included widening, resurfacing and grooving the runway, and installing comprehensive lighting.
2015: On 1 July 2015, the $17 million international terminal expansion opened, 20 years to the day after the first international flight from Sydney was welcomed.
2016: It was a historic moment for Queenstown Airport and a major milestone for New Zealand aviation and tourism when the first domestic after-dark flight (from Auckland), operated by Air New Zealand, and the first international after-dark flight (from Melbourne), operated by Jetstar, touched down on 23 May and 24 June respectively.
2017: Qantas and Virgin Australia followed suit in 2017, gaining regulatory certification for after-dark flights. Their services helped provide more flexibility and choice for locals and visitors travelling trans-Tasman during the ski season.
2018: A $7 million project to reseal the aircraft parking area (apron overlay) was completed. The resealing of this area occurs once every 10 years on average but this time sustainability was incorporated into all aspects of the project. A new-generation lower-carbon asphalt, developed by Downer NZ and some key partners and primarily made from 1.5 million recycled glass beer bottles and 330,000 waste printer ink toners, was used for the project. The new commercial vehicle waiting area between Terminal Car Park A and the airport’s internal roundabout was also sealed at the same time using the new-generation asphalt.
2018: A two-year $24 million terminal upgrade programme of works began to improve resilience and increase capacity within the current terminal footprint to provide for some growth, improve passenger flow and enhance the customer experience.
2020: Planned runway maintenance works were completed at Queenstown Airport during April and May when the country was in ‘lockdown’ in response to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Because of limited aircraft movements, the maintenance works were completed under budget and in shorter timeframes than would have been possible under normal operating conditions.