Almost 24 million passengers passed through Brisbane Airport’s gates in 2019, with a quarter on international flights. That plummeted to just 7.8 million last financial year. Still, that made it the country’s busiest airport as Queensland escaped the long lockdowns enforced in Sydney and Melbourne.
“The first year was all about crisis management,” said Mr de Graaff, who was appointed CEO in 2018 after a 23-year career in aviation that started in Amsterdam and has taken the Dutchman to Stockholm, Rio de Janeiro and New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. “The last six months we’re sort of in a holding pattern, but it’s good to see there’s light at the end of the tunnel now.”
The privately owned airport eked out a $5.4 million after-tax profit from $447 million in revenue last year, compared to a $275 million profit from $840 million in revenue in 2019, its annual reports show.
While financially bruising, the pandemic has not dented long-term investors’ appetite for airport assets. Shareholders in the ASX-listed Sydney Airport will vote this Thursday on a $23.6 billion take over from a consortium of investors including the Australian superannuation fund-backed IFM Investors.
IFM already owns one-fifth of Melbourne Airport and 20 per cent of Brisbane, alongside the Queensland Investment Corporation, the Royal Schiphol Group, which owns Amsterdam Airport, and the global asset managers First Sentier and Whitehelm Capital.
Queensland opened for quarantine-free international travel for select travellers last Saturday. Mr De Graaff said Brisbane – a vital entry point for international visitors destined for tourism hotspots around Queensland – would find it harder to attract airline traffic after opening more than two months behind Sydney and Melbourne.
“That’s why it’s really important that there will be a level playing field when it comes to, for example, campaigns from Tourism Australia,” he said.
The airlines and visitors flying to Brisbane Airport, and to Australia, will also change after the pandemic. Many carriers are still on the ropes financially and at risk of collapse or, at the least, will need to reassess their networks.
China was the biggest source of inbound visitors to Australia in 2019 and the soured political relationship between the two countries puts a question mark over whether that will ever return, Mr de Graaff said.
However, he said there are opportunities to grow new markets, though. Traffic was booming from Japan and North America before the pandemic and India and South East Asia are ripe for growth.
“For a lot of those destinations we are the perfect gateway into Australia – we’ve got capacity, we’ve got a new runway, we’ve got the capacity to connect those flights,” he said.
”Just based on the geography … a lot of airlines had an interest to develop Brisbane into a sort of hub.“
New smaller-capacity, long-haul aircraft like the Boeing 787 had been a game-changer for Brisbane in the few years leading up to the pandemic, making it viable for airlines to add the city to their networks. Mr De Graaff said the next generation of single-aisle jets with extended flight range, like the Airbus A320neo, will connect the airport to even more destinations throughout Asia.
Brisbane opened a second, parallel runway in July 2020 preparing for a forecast doubling of passengers from 24 million to 50 million over the next two decades.
The Omicron wave has shown just how volatile the travel industry is, prompting widespread cancellations and airlines reducing capacity following an encouraging lead up to Christmas.
Mr De Graaff predicts a period of cheap domestic airfares as airlines “do whatever’s necessary” to fill seats in the pandemic’s wake. New competition from Rex Airlines on the lucrative Sydney-Melbourne-Brisbane triangle and the arrival of new challenger Bonza will also drive fares lower.
Beyond the immediate concerns of COVID-19, the airport is preparing to build a third terminal by the end of the decade – just time for the 2032 Brisbane Olympics.
The impact of that event for the city – and by extension its airport – will be immense.
“I lived in Europe for the most part of my life and North America, and there’s still a lot of people that have never heard of Brisbane,” Mr de Graaff said.
“We’ve got a runway of 10 years to sell and position Brisbane as a top destination and top place to visit. This will put us on the map.”
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