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Opening of Brisbane Airport’s new runway “a turning point”

Analysis

A recent CAPA report addressed the reopening of runways at major hubs in Europe.

In the southern hemisphere, Brisbane Airport in Queensland, a new runway opens on 12-Jul-2020, one that was planned for over many decades and is arriving at the one time during those many decades when it is perhaps least needed. But airports must look to the future and the much hoped-for return of 'normality'.

It comes just as attempts to save Virgin Australia, the second biggest airline at Brisbane – its main hub – and the one chosen to make the inaugural flight on the new runway, has seemingly been rescued from bankruptcy and is ready to take to the air under new ownership.

Summary

  • Brisbane Airport’s third runway will open on 12-Jul-2020, three months earlier than anticipated.
  • The airport will have more runway capacity than any other Australian state capital city.
  • The price tag is almost the same as the entire airport when it was acquired in 1997.
  • Airport management promises “no delays” in future.
  • Traffic growth has been uniformly steady over the past 10 years.
  • Recovery from the dramatic capacity slump has started, but it is slow going.

Brisbane is the hub airport for Virgin Australia

Virgin Australia Group CEO and MD Paul Scurrah has said that the opening of Brisbane Airport's new runway on 12-Jul-2020 "is a turning point, not only for airlines such as Virgin Australia, but also for the broader tourism sector which has been hampered by the COVID-19 crisis". The runway was previously expected to begin operation in Sep-2020.

Brisbane Airport has said that Virgin Australia will be the first airline to depart on Brisbane Airport's new runway when it officially opens after eight years of construction and five decades of planning.

To mark the anniversary of the inaugural service between Brisbane and Tropical North Queensland by Barrier Reef Airways on 12-Jul-1947, Virgin Australia will operate a Boeing 737 aircraft between Brisbane and Cairns.

Brisbane Airport is the gateway to Brisbane, the Queensland capital and one of the busiest airports in Australia. Owned and operated by Brisbane Airport Corporation Pty Ltd, the airport hosts domestic and international passenger and cargo services for more than 25 airlines. The airport is the hub of Virgin Australia.

The new runway system will provide Brisbane Airport with the greatest runway capacity of any capital city airport in the country.

There are currently two runways, of 1700m × 30m and 3540m × 45m. The new 3300m x 60m runway will raise capacity from 227,000 aircraft movements per annum to 360,000 by 2035.

It has been claimed that there will be “no delays” due to lack of capacity, so airlines “can actually forecast growth".

The 'required' comparable expansion of Melbourne's airport is going ahead; Sydney is - eventually - getting an additional airport

It is also been stated that the success of the new runway would hinge on Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport and Melbourne Tullamarine Airport increasing capacity and improving operations, because the triangle of air services between the three is “fundamental to aviation in Australia".

That comment was made in 2017, since when the new Western Sydney airport’s construction has been confirmed by the government. Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport is physically small and not easily extended.

In Nov-2019 Melbourne Tullamarine Airport determined that a third runway, constructed on a north-south orientation, would provide the greatest benefits to the airport; the airport started preparing a preliminary draft major development plan for consideration by the Australian Government.

Price tag almost the same as the airport’s lease price in 1997

Brisbane’s AUD1.1 billion (USD767 million) privately funded project is the largest in the history of Brisbane Airport since its opening in 1988, and worth nearly as much as the initial cost of the airport when Brisbane Airport Corporation (BAC) bought it in 1997 for AUD1.38 billion.

Construction was completed in Apr-2020. It will be opened over the course of four weeks.

BAC believes the first departure by Virgin Australia would be a fitting way to mark Brisbane’s new runway as open for business as it is the airport’s “home carrier”, and “an airline that has always shown confidence in Brisbane and Queensland as a place to do business.”

Virgin Australia is currently the second biggest airline at Brisbane as measured by seat capacity (24%), after Qantas.

Virgin Australia not out of the woods yet

Along with Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia has its own problems of course, and remains in administration. Private equity firm Bain Capital has been selected as the new owners and should proceed to the next stage, despite a blocking attempt by shareholders who fear losing their equity.

Separate to the new runway there have been other infrastructural improvements at Brisbane Airport over the past few years, including:

  • An AUD135 million (USD94 million) expansion of its northern international terminal and apron. The project delivered 55,000sqm of new pavement, new aircraft taxiways, and three new aircraft parking bays capable of accommodating aircraft up to A380 weight, as well as improved passenger experience and processing efficiency to cater for future growth. Work added 11,000sqm of space at the international terminal, including new arriving and departing passenger zones, two new walk-out gates, and four new aerobridges.
  • AUD40 million (USD30.9 million) redevelopment of the domestic terminal.
  • An AUD10 million (USD6.9 million) project to construct a seawall to protect against high tides and flooding.
  • The development of BNE Auto Mall, with stage one due to open by 2021. The AUD300 million automotive precinct will include a performance track, car dealerships, manufacturers and retail amenities. It will also service and sit alongside exhibition and conference facilities, hotels, and driver training schools, which are all located next to the Brisbane Airport international terminal.

LCC seat capacity share is low

While it is a major commercial city, Brisbane is also at the centre of Australia’s east coast tourism industry.

Accordingly, a little less than 20% of its seat capacity is on low cost carriers, although it should be noted that its LCC share is five percentage points lower than the LCC capacity share at Sydney, and 16 percentage points lower than at Melbourne. These statistics are for the week commencing 06-Jul-2020, however, and the times are still hardly ‘normal’.

Passenger traffic growth at Brisbane has in fact been rather uniform over the past decade, varying between 4.8% (2010) and 0.4% (2016).

Brisbane Airport passenger numbers and growth: 2010 – 2020

The same is broadly true of Melbourne and Sydney airports in terms of uniformity, but growth rates have been higher at those airports.

Hampered by higher airport charges?

One small problem that Brisbane may have in attracting new airlines and increased frequencies to the new runway is that is does not compare well with Sydney and Melbourne for airport charges.

The data below is for 2019 and is combined landing and terminal fees for a variety of aircraft types at Brisbane, Melbourne Tullamarine and Sydney Kingsford Smith airports. There are other ways to measure and compare charges. Even so, Brisbane’s charges are the highest in every category except one.

Brisbane does not have a directly competing airport in the city-region boundaries, but Gold Coast Airport, the fourth busiest international airport in Australia and the gateway to one of the country's biggest tourism destinations, is less than 100km to the south. That is why it is also included in this chart.

(Also, the smaller Sunshine Coast Airport [its newly expanded 2,450m runway received its first landing on 14-Jun-2020], delivering direct access to another major tourism destination, is connected by motorway only 100km to the north. And the mainly cargo-focussed Wellcamp Airport, 160km to the west, in Jun-2020 welcomed new once weekly freighter services from Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.)

Brisbane Airport combined landing / terminal charges (USD) for 2019

Capacity drop being clawed back

As with most other airports, Brisbane was hit with a very sharp drop in capacity in Mar-2020, going from 564,000 in the week commencing 02-Mar-2020 to 132,000 in the week commencing 30-Mar-2020, then falling further to just 37,000 in the week commencing 15-Apr-2020.

The ‘recovery’ is slow but steady and in the week commencing 06-Jul-2020 there were 121,000 seats.

Brisbane Airport: weekly total seat capacity, 2017-2020*

Brisbane Airport Corporation has been privatised since 1997

Looking at the ownership, the airport was leased along with many others in Australia in the late 1990s. Brisbane Airport Corporation has been a fully privatised organisation since 01-Jul-1997 on a 50-year lease (to 01-Jul-2047), and now consisting of the following shareholders:

QIC Infrastructure Management and related funds 25%; IFM Investors 19.8%; Royal Schipol group 19.6%; Colonial First State Airport Fund and related management funds 17%; Unisuper 7%; MTAA Superannuation Fund 4.9%; Commonwealth Bank Super Group 3.9%; Sunsuper 1.5%; Equipsuper 1.3%. (Source: CAPA Airport Profiles/Airport Investors Database).

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