Brisbane Airport Corporation CEO, Gert-Jan de Graaff, talks to Joe Bates about the hugely ambitious development plans that tempted him back to the Queensland gateway.
It says something about the appeal of Brisbane Airport and its ambitious development plans that CEO, Gert-Jan de Graaff, admits that he knew he would be leaving New York and heading to Australia the moment he was offered the job.
Dutchman de Graaff was the CEO of New York-JFK’s Terminal 4 operator, JFKIAT, which during his four-year tenure completed a $1 billion upgrade of its facilities and saw passenger numbers rise to 24 million annually.
Arguably, JFKIAT’s success showed the US just how effective public-private partnership (PPP or P3) projects can be at the nation’s gateways.
But, for de Graaff, the opportunity to help shape the future of Brisbane Airport (BNE) and oversee one of the most imaginative airport land development plans in the world, proved irresistible.
It also helped that he had spent five years at BNE earlier in his career and therefore had the inside track about the airport’s ambitions and already knew and loved the city of Brisbane, the state of Queensland and Australia.
“The opportunity to be an airport CEO for the first time and lead Brisbane Airport at such a critical and exciting time in its history was too good to ignore,” enthuses de Graaff.
“The airport is the third busiest in Australia for passenger traffic and its potential is exceptional, particularly in international markets.
“I also knew that I would be spearheading a fantastic organisation [Brisbane Airport Corporation (BAC)], and an airport that is growing, developing and is very ambitious in a country where aviation is essential for its economic and social development, and therefore is appreciated by the people.
“It’s a great place to be and, I must also add that the weather isn’t too bad either, particularly for someone who had experienced a few New York winters when temperatures can drop to minus 20 degrees! If the winter temperatures here drop to 20ºC, it is considered chilly!”
Back in the fold for just over a year, de Graaff says that he is enjoying life in Brisbane and watching the progress of the most high-profile piece of new infrastructure currently under development at BNE, its new A$1.3 billion parallel runway.
Expected to significantly enhance the airport’s airfield capacity when it opens in mid-2020, contractors have literally just finished laying more than 100,000 tonnes of asphalt on the 3.3-kilometre long runway surface allowing for work to start on the installation of new ground lighting and navigational aids.
When open, it will raise BNE’s airfield capacity from 50 to up to 110 aircraft movements per hour and allow the airport to become a better neighbour to its surrounding communities by ensuring that all night flights operate over water into Moreton Bay, well away from any residential areas.
“It’s a win-win scenario for everybody,” enthuses de Graaff. “It will effectively make us one of the most efficient and best prepared airports in Australia for future growth at the same time as making us more noise efficient, so lessening our impact on the local community.”
BAC estimates that in its first year of operation, the new runway will create an additional A$1 billion in direct economic contribution to the Queensland economy, with indirect benefits estimated to be worth more than A$545 million.
And it gets better as forecasts indicate that these figures will rise over the next 20 years to an estimated A$2.1 billion, with the indirect contribution growing to an estimated A$1.1 billion.
Airport master plan
A record 23.6 million passengers (+1.7%) passed through BNE in 2018, and with forecasts predicting that this total could more than double to 51.5 million by FY2039/40, BAC is more than aware of the need to ensure that the gateway has the capacity to meet future demand.
Indeed, BAC’s Brisbane Airport Master Plan 2020 considers the proposed development of BNE to 2040 and outlines a handful of projects for potential development between 2020 and 2040.
They include proposals for the expansion of the existing Domestic and International terminals and the identification of areas for a new terminal to be built subject to demand.
In the longer-term, so effectively more than 20 years from becoming reality, BAC has outlined plans for the addition of new Western and Northern terminals.
“The common theme of the Brisbane Airport 2020 Master Plan is one of planning for growth,” says de Graaff. “Growth in demand for both more frequent flights and for new destinations, growth in the businesses that call the airport their home and growth in the important freight and cargo services, both imports and exports that connect businesses across Queensland to Australia and the world.
“With the addition of some gates, we have the capacity within the footprint of our existing International and Domestic terminals to cope with growth for at least the next five years. However, between 2025 and 2030, we will need to decide where we are going to build the next terminal or major expansion of the airport.
“We know this, are prepared for it and indeed have provisional plans in place to ensure that capacity constraints never become an issue at Brisbane Airport.”
With 2,700 hectares of land at its disposal, BAC is certainly well positioned to develop a number of commercial facilities across the airport site, and de Graaff has no hesitation in stating that creating an airport city or aerotropolis centred around Brisbane Airport is a key goal.
The plan is to create a number of precincts or nine neighbourhoods in five zones across the airport site dedicated to a range of different business activities.
The neighbourhoods include Skygate (commercial, retail and leisure hub); Airport Central (a 24-hour service centre and home to the BNE Auto Mall); Airport North (logistics and aviation hub); Export Park (warehousing and distribution); Da Vinci (training and education centres); Airport Industrial Park (Warehouse, storage and distribution facilities); and Airport East (maintenance and associated businesses).
Skygate – which will have its own golf course, factory outlets, supermarkets and outdoor life focused facilities as well BAC’s HQ and other offices – and Airport Central, with its planned new BNE Auto Mall, are arguably the most attention grabbing new additions.
The opening of the A$18 million Skygate Home & Life centre in the former is said to have added a new dimension to the precinct’s retail offerings by introducing a range of furniture and homeware stores to the commercial mix, that now includes DFO Brisbane, Queensland’s only 24/7 Woolworth’s and more than 160 speciality outlets.
While de Graaff describes the BNE Auto Mall as a first of its kind development that will include a test track where, among other things, people can try out new cars before buying them from local dealerships.
“The airport’s location 14 kilometres from Brisbane’s Central Business District makes us an attractive proposition for a number of businesses, particularly those that need a lot of space, like factory outlets,” enthuses de Graaff, who notes that BAC’s plans complement what is being offered elsewhere and therefore have the 100% backing of Brisbane City Council.
The most recent traffic figures for a 12-month period show that passenger numbers increased by 1.5% to a record 23.8 million passengers for the year ending July 31, 2019.
International passenger numbers increased by 4.5% to 6.2 million during the year while domestic throughput, in line with most other Australian airports, experienced a marginal 0.5% rise to 17.6 million.
De Graaff attributes the continued upturn in traffic to the overall strength of the Australian economy, a number of new routes – which, in some cases, have been driven by the introduction of new aircraft into the market – and the enduring appeal of Queensland and Australia to international tourists.
At the last count, BNE was served by 34 airlines operating flights to 85 destinations across the world. The top five airlines at BNE in terms of market share are Virgin Australia (31%), Qantas (25%), Jetstar (13%), QantasLink (10%) and Tigerair (5%).
Perhaps not surprisingly, Sydney, Melbourne, Cairns, Townsville and Perth are BNE’s busiest domestic routes, while the top five foreign nationalities in terms of passenger numbers are New Zealand, China (including Hong Kong), the UK, US and Taiwan.
New airlines launching services over the last 18 months have included Malaysia Airlines (Kuala Lumpur), Royal Brunei (Brunei), Samoa Airways (Apia) and Thai AirAsia X (Bangkok), while others such as China Airlines, Singapore Airlines and EVA Air continue to raise capacity on existing routes through up-gauging aircraft or increasing frequencies.
And de Graaff enthusiastically reminds me that they will soon be joined by new non-stop Qantas routes to Chicago and San Francisco in the US, services he admits have only been made possible by the new generation of longer range, smaller capacity aircraft, such as the B787-9 Dreamliner.
“The introduction of direct flights into Chicago, the mid-west USA, and San Francisco, the cultural, commercial, and financial centre of Northern California, is a game-changer for Brisbane, opening the city and state up to a large underserved US market,” he enthuses.
“At 16 hours and 20 minutes, the Brisbane-Chicago route will be the fourth longest non-stop service in the world and has been made possible, and economically viable, by new aircraft technology which makes it possible for smaller aircraft to fly longer distances.
“These aircraft are very good for Australia as it means that routes that were not profitable in the past, or simply too costly for airlines to fly, are now possible. Next April they will be bringing us Chicago and San Francisco and I am sure that more destinations in China and across Asia that are currently considered impractical will follow in time.”
He also believes that the construction of BNE’s new runway has helped attract the new services and they will be the first of many new airlines, routes and destinations that will grow from the decision to enhance its airfield capacity.
The success BNE has enjoyed in expanding its international route network has led to it winning a number of accolades over the years, most recently the prestigious Routes Asia 2019 Marketing Award.
De Graaff is proud of the Routes award, viewing it as “acknowledgment of the fact that we speak the same language as the airlines”, but is quick to point out that BNE doesn’t act alone in its route development efforts, noting that it works in collaboration with a number of partners that include the city of Brisbane and Queensland State Government.
“When we talk to the airlines, we bring our local destination marketing organisation, Brisbane Marketing, and Tourism and Events Queensland to the table with us,” he explains.
“We operate as Team Brisbane and, I think that this approach really resonates with the airlines as they know that if they decide to invest in flying here there is a number of organisations behind us that will do everything they can to make the route a success.”
Arguably the strongest evidence of the value of a new route to the region is provided in an independent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, which claims that each international flight arriving into Brisbane generates an estimated A$620,000 in expenditure, the bulk of which is spent in Queensland.
BAC has certainly done a top job to date in terms of its commitment to protecting the environment and the sustainable development of Brisbane Airport.
As you would expect, a number of environmental clauses have been factored into the constriction and development of BNE’s runway as BAC is determined to maintain its reputation for being one of the most environmentally friendly airports in Australia, the region, and the world.
Indeed, its ‘green’ initiatives are so numerous it is impossible to list them all in this article. They include reaching and maintaining Level 3 ‘Optimisation’ status in ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation programme; the creation of a Biodiversity Zone on a 285-hectare area of the airport site; operating Australia’s largest fleet of electronic buses; and the installation of more than 22,000 solar panels across the airport site that will eventually generate more than nine million kilowatt hours of renewable energy each year.
De Graaff also assures that sustainability has been ingrained into the airport design process with the creation of Ecologically Sustainable Development guidelines for all developments as well as incorporating sustainability principles into the retail upgrade development planned for the Domestic Terminal.
BAC promises that its Biodiversity Zone, which occupies 10% of the airport’s landmass, will continue to be actively managed to protect significant species and habitats and that it will continue to evaluate the broader impact of BNE on the surrounding environment as it develops in the future.
Considerations, it says, will include the amount of energy and water consumed, the amount of waste and carbon generated and the quality of the surrounding environment.
What can Brisbane ultimately achieve as an airport? “I think we can become the second busiest and best airport in Australia and hopefully the one that everyone is talking about because of the quality of service and memorable experience we offer passengers and the efficient and effective processes we provide for the airlines,” says de Graaff.
“We are better positioned to grow than any other airport in the country because we have a lot of land available to develop the airport and a master plan in place to make it happen.”
Incidentally, he believes that Melbourne will become Australia’s busiest airport, overtaking the capacity constrained SYD, sometime in the next 15 to 20 years. The capital of Victoria state is set to overtake Sydney as the country’s biggest city in 2026.
So, by 2040, MEL and BNE could be Australia’s No.1 and No.2 airports for passenger traffic. You heard it here, first!