Going Places

Mildura Airport

The name was changed slightly to Sunraysia, which remains the title of the region of northwestern Victoria and southwestern New South Wales centred on Mildura. The picture is highly relevant as it appears to show an early attempt to put Mildura on the map through flight. Today, Mildura’s airport is a crucial conduit between this bustling regional town and the big cities of Melbourne to the southeast and Adelaide to the west.

In June, MQL (the airport’s IATA code) will be celebrating the completion of a brand new terminal to handle the increasing traffic that comes with the booming popularity of the town and its region.

Bill Burke, Chief Executive Officer at MQL, is a refreshingly straight-talking enthusiast for and promoter of Mildura, despite being of Melbournian origins and with one foot in the South Australian capital (he flies up from Adelaide and stays during the working week). “This perception of Mildura as being ‘easily accessible’ is essential,” he says, “if the city is to attract business people who are considering investment; professional and executive staff who are considering relocation; or tourists who are weighing up alternative destinations.

“The further expansion of the airport promotes a benefit cascade: expansion of the airport allows access for larger planes and more passengers, larger planes mean greater access by low-cost carriers, low cost carriers and larger planes mean cheaper flights, cheaper flights generate more demand from passengers and then greater demand will promote more competition, lower prices and more flights.”

This is a largely self-sustaining cycle, Bill explains. “The outcome will be a boost to all sectors of the regional economy. The greatest benefit, however, will be in promoting a step change in tourism.” A failure to invest in airport expansion, conversely, would surely decrease Mildura’s reputation as a desirable destination.

As the master plan for expansion made clear when it was finalised more than two years ago, the Mildura airport is one of the core pillars of the regional economy, and has offset the distance that would otherwise isolate Mildura as a far-flung regional location. Adelaide and Melbourne are now only an hour away, so Mildura is as close in travel time to Melbourne as Geelong or Bendigo are by rail or road.

Bill reports that the redevelopment plan is just about on track and due for unveiling on 28 June despite, as he points out, some of the most unpredicted and inhospitable weather imaginable during the last year or so – including unprecedented rains and summer heat that rendered it impossible to work on construction during the middle of the day (“days when a crowbar was too hot to pick up”).

The ‘old’ terminal building was first developed in 1995 and has been upgraded as passenger demand has increased. However, in its current configuration, it has reached a critical point where it is unable to effectively serve current passenger numbers. The terminal is at saturation and demand is rapidly overtaking the floor area available to serve that demand. A detailed assessment was made of the areas required to meet current and projected passenger demands and reviewed and verified by specialist airport planning firm Airbiz.

The detailed concept was drawn up by a specialist consultant team under the direction of Mildura Airport Corporation (the airport was previously run by the local council but is now in private hands, enabling the company to bring in specialists with appropriate knowledge). The development concept expands the existing terminal building in a number of areas to achieve the required area and passenger flows and ensures that the terminal is of sufficient size to meet the predicted passenger numbers through to 2020, while maintaining high levels of service.

The concept was designed to ensure that redevelopment could take place with the minimum possible disruption to ongoing passenger movements. The redeveloped terminal also provides for further expansion beyond 2020 by adopting a modular expansion concept. After this critical stage, incremental expansion can be economically applied.

In 2009, the Mildura region had a $2.8 billion regional economy and has continued sustained growth over recent years. Bill says the airport is “one of the most significant pieces of community infrastructure in the whole region. It’s vital.” It serves three states (NSW, VIC and SA) and the relevant authorities in all three states have chipped in “to support the critical nature of the airport.” He is happy with multiple daily flights to Melbourne, Adelaide, Sydney and Broken Hill via carriers Qantas, Virgin Australia and Regional Express (much of the increase in traffic being announced on July 7 last year). Unlike some other regional airports, MQL is not currently dreaming of charter plane-loads of Chinese tourists and Bill is not anticipating connections to Brisbane, Darwin or Perth. However, he quietly points out that the astonishing growth of some other airports is accounted for largely by FIFO operations which will not last more than a few years while MQL’s growth plan is more durable. Bill is hopeful of getting a gradual increase in the frequency of the current routes.

Mildura, which rose to some aviation prominence during WW2 with its training facilities for RAAF pilots, remains a vital strategic location for police and emergency services and will soon open a new commercial flight-training centre (having around fifteen training aircraft, simulators, and classrooms to train aspiring Airbus and Boeing flight crew). This is expected to attract international interest, especially given the global shortage of good crew and the cost of training. Mildura boasts world-leading weather for flying – ie the lowest number of days of cloud or rain – together with uncluttered airspace (and likely clearance for night-flights). The current runway comfortably accommodates the likes of Boeing 737s and an extension is in the planning stage.

Mildura is an educational centre with four major tertiary sector providers and a suite of other education providers. Young people stay and professional people are attracted to the region, creating the skills base to support continued economic growth. There is also a thriving research business – research and development expertise is retained and grown in the region to service local and national capacity through SunRISE21, the Murray Darling Freshwater Research Centre and the departments of Primary Industries on both sides of the NSW-VIC border.

In terms of passengers, the airport is, of course, crucial to the expansion of tourism in Mildura, which can now be seen as a stop-off on a round-Australia. Rotary Club and Lions groups have staged conferences in recent years at local facilities that can handle up to a thousand people (including an on-airport hangar which has been converted to a very pleasant if somewhat unusual meeting place for events). It is also important to a growing number of retired and retiring Australians who consider selling their big-city home and buying something equivalent in Sunraysia at a third of the price and living off the difference.

“It’s a statistical fact that a lot of people are moving into the Mildura area,” Bill explains, “because they can find a better office and because of the low cost of access to the community. They can live here very affordably in a climate that is very pleasant.” They join a growing population in the area which has settled and founded businesses and wants to remain ‘connected’ for a trip to the big city from time to time (ticket prices vary enormously with internet offers but could be as low as $60 to 70 one-way). “The people up here are very mobile; a lot of business is done out of town – much of it in Melbourne and particularly in Sydney and now, with the connections we have, there is a high level of international traffic too with the export materials out of here.” Lifestyle perks also include the fruit for which the area is famous.

Bill is optimistic that MQL will soon add another Regional Airport of the Year award to its two previous awards. He is confident that traffic will increase and fill the new terminal, which will then be expanded in a modular fashion to keep pace. He is bullish about prospects for the Mildura area, where conditions appear fair for future growth. In fact – perhaps oddly in view of his job – he isn’t going anywhere!

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?

December 16, 2018, 6:44 AM AEDT