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 20s. 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 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 its 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 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.
He also adds that BNE is already so much more than just an aeronautical facility due to the on-site presence of non-aviation related developments such as shopping centres, educational facilities and hotels across the airport site.
Without doubt the airport is a key economic generator for Brisbane and the surrounding region, today accounting for approximately 1.3% of Queensland’s Gross State Product and contributing an estimated A$4.7 billion per annum to the Australian economy.
And, if all goes to plan, its impact on the Australian economy is expected to grow to A$8.7 billion by 2040-41 based on an average increase of around 3.1% per annum.
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 Victorian state capital 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!