Take-Off Time

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-By John Boley

In general, neither frequent flyers nor once-a-year holidaymakers choose the airport they fly from or to; they choose a destination. So if you want to visit Bali, it’s Denpasar airport. You don’t go via Soekarno-Hatta in Jakarta just because the hibiscus is prettier. If you want to go to Perth, you don’t fly to Geraldton because it’s less congested. Accordingly, most airports make very little effort to make themselves attractive to passengers and many even appear downright hostile even to the airlines that pay to use them.

So Gold Coast Airport represents something of an unusual animal. The former Coolangatta field is probably unique anyway as, during summer, the two ends of its runways are in different time zones (the Queensland-New South Wales border crosses halfway). But more significantly, as Chief Operating Officer Paul Donovan explained to Business in Focus, “unlike most other airports, we have competition.” There is another airport in northern New South Wales, but an even larger competitor is in Brisbane, a little under 100km to the north. Paul explained that he cannot take the standard “monopolistic” approach. It is not like flying to (say) Sydney, where you would be unlikely to choose the option of a flight into Newcastle. For a start, count the flights. The trouble for Gold Coast is, both it and Brisbane have a large number of flights from the major jumping-off points – in Gold Coast Airport’s case it’s 26 per day from Sydney alone – so passengers have a real option in this part of the world.

“Sure, people fly to the destination rather than the airport, but if they have a choice of three airports to get to the destination then we have got to make sure that our airport is on-side. That means we have to work with the airlines to make sure that the pricing structure, the capacity and the routes that fly in here are right. All of those fundamental principals are important in terms of getting customers to fly here.”

Aware of this need to make itself attractive to the user, be that airline or passenger, the company embarked on a journey nearly a dozen years ago to set the airport up “as a low cost operation.” So-called low cost carriers form “the most significant part” of the airport’s traffic and require a significantly different business model than legacy airlines –the full-price carriers.

Accordingly, Gold Coast built a new and longer runway which, together with express taxiways, means a shorter taxi from or to the terminal and faster turnaround of expensive jet aircraft. “We built a new terminal that was highly functional and didn’t win architectural awards because it was done at a cost that allowed us to be very competitive.” Too often, as any frequent flyer will agree, expensively designed airport passenger terminals are very easy on the eye but a nightmare to actually use, as if no one ever considered what the building might be like when you fill it with passengers and staff. Paul says this terminal is very user-friendly, with plenty of space for check-ins, a good baggage handling system, and a central security area. When you move through past security, “we have lots of good retail and food and beverage offerings, which have appeal.”

According to Paul, the terminal was intended to avoid the usual impression of massive scale. “We wanted the airport to be an extension of the destination, so it wasn’t this monolith that was built out of glass and high-rise. We don’t have aero bridges, so people can sit there looking at the plane coming in and look out to the hills; it is a beautiful aspect.” Not having aero bridges means passengers can disembark (don’t you hate that word ‘de-plane’?) from fore and aft, speeding the unloading process “so you can turn the aircraft around quickly, which appeals to low cost carriers. We went about building a product that suited our customers’ needs.”

‘Customers’ being passengers or airlines? “Both,” says Paul. “We consulted with the airlines about what they wanted, but then made sure that from their customers’ point of view we could deliver what was required, bearing in mind these are not legacy carriers.”

Paul says the facility provides a quality customer experience at a reasonable cost, superior to the general world standard of low cost carrier handling, which itself is changing anyway. The first low cost carriers operated from standard airport terminals (e.g. Freddie Laker’s revolutionary Skytrain service from London to the US that started as far back as 1977). But more recently carriers such as AirAsia have operated from purpose-built ‘no-frills’ terminals (e.g. Singapore Changi) that have tended to – perhaps deliberately – resemble hangars. But Singapore is planning to revise the whole product offer and Paul says, “low cost doesn’t mean low service or low safety or low anything else.” Low cost carriers are so called “because their cost per available seat kilometre (ASK) is lower than the legacy carriers so they can put seats into the sky at a cheaper rate. It doesn’t mean that we have built an inferior product; it is directly the opposite in fact – our service offering is tremendously high.”

The demographic of Gold Coast tourism has changed considerably and the airport has done the same in turn. Car parking space has doubled. Other modes of getting to and from the airport have been expanded with bus services to many outlying areas. Because of the quality of life of the area, says Paul, there is an increasing number of people who can choose to make it their base and travel to their work far and wide. The growing demand for FIFO (fly in, fly out) employees who work in remote areas but like to live somewhere a little more ‘connected’ is likely to have a beneficial impact on the airport too, and Paul says he and his team are working towards accommodating FIFO-ers. He says resource companies and others seeking labour have noticed that there is availability in the Gold Coast region. “We believe it won’t be too long before some of these mining companies will want to source labour from the Gold Coast. We are getting fly in, fly out now on our Mount Isa service, as well as Perth, Townsville and even Cairns.” It’s not yet a massive movement but “once these mines are in operation we will certainly see a lot of fly in fly out directly to the mine sites.”

Currently the traffic through Gold Coast airport is “overwhelmingly domestic.” However, airlines using the facility (including AirAsia X, Virgin/Air New Zealand and Jetstar) are on the increase and the region is being effectively marketed in markets such as Japan and China, while the deal with Scoot (please see sidebar for further details) will open up more than 100,000 additional seats per year.

Paul’s team is ready to greet these visitors. “We are very innovative; we were the first people to have Japanese liaison officers dedicated to help Japanese tourists through the airport and we were certainly the first to put on Chinese liaison officers to help their passengers. Last night, for example, we had 11 groups of Chinese and we had our people there to help them on their journey through the airport. It is all about value, and service is really what we are trying to offer.”

Our facility and the region need to become generally more China ready, he says. “During Chinese New Year we had a lot of Chinese banners put up around the airport and we were giving out gifts to the Chinese passing through the airport. They thought we were wonderful. I don’t think there would be one other airport that would have done that except in China, maybe.” Paul totally refutes the argument that Chinese tourists don’t spend money. “That’s nonsense. I hear of receipts for what they spend here.” Of course at the top end they spend big but the more modest-budget tourists are also keen to spend. “For us, that is a challenge; to make sure that our food and beverage offering and our retail offerings are in the areas that they want to invest in.”

Growth has been startling, though tempered by the 2011 floods in Queensland. “Last year was awful. But we are still growing,” says Paul. “Scoot is great – we need three or four more like that. We are building a [business-class] lounge here for Virgin – that’s another reason why you would come here and not go to Brisbane.” Paul, also chairman of the Gold Coast Tourism organisation, signs off firmly. “We are confident about the future of the Gold Coast as a destination.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

June 19, 2018, 8:09 PM AEST