A visit to the East Pilbara town of Newman just a few years ago would have found an airport heaving with the ever-growing fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workforce that characterised the mining construction boom.
But when the boom ended, the Shire of East Pilbara saw a sharp decline in passenger numbers, highlighting the cyclical nature of the mining town.
East Pilbara Manager Development Airports Salomon Kloppers arrived in the job right at this time, facing a significant challenge: ensure the airport continued to support this remote community and its mining sector, while also managing the impact of reduced passenger numbers.
“Our Shire contains three separate facilities which include two Aircraft Landing Areas (ALAs) to small communities and a main facility at Newman,” he says.
“The two ALAs are a few hundred kilometres from the main town, mostly servicing the community with mail-runs, medical and mining related requirements.
“Newman Airport is a security-controlled airport servicing around 50 jet flights a week and we support significant helicopter and GA operations.”
Salomon joined the Shire four years ago, when legacy loans and unfunded critical infrastructure work was looming.
“Clear strategic commercial and cost interventions were needed,” he says.
“We made changes to all spheres of Newman Airport, resulting in an airport that is financially confident, loan free and independently funding its operations.
“Although ensuring a strong future for a highly cyclical airport was not easy, today our local industry (some of the largest mines in the world as an example) and community is assured that the airport is able to support their future plans, regardless of what they may be.”
With the airport’s operations now financially sustainable, Salomon has embarked on new projects to address some of the airport’s biggest challenges.
“We get little infrastructure support from elsewhere – as an example we have no potable water or septic connection so we have to provide services like water, power distribution and roads ourselves. But I have an excellent airport infrastructure team assisting with that,” Salomon says.
“We are about to go to market for large works linking the airport to our new bore field, pipelines, reverse osmosis plants and new potable water reticulation corridors and fire lines.
“This work will redefine the potential for expansion of the airport. We are also hoping to have a complete new airfield lighting system within the next few months.”
Salomon says that while achieving these practical measures will improve efficiency, the Shire is also changing how it thinks about what the community needs and what it expects from their local airport.
“Some of the most significant work we are doing is changing the way the airport is viewed by users and the community,” he says.
“As a transit point for fly-in fly-out workers, it was designed with functionality in mind. Now we have a new customer service agenda introducing things such as a kiddies’ corner and terminal library.”
Salomon says his previous work in a policy role at the Australian Airports Association has helped prepare him for this aspect of managing a regional airport.
“I liked the fact that at the AAA I would quickly meet all the people shaping, guiding, steering and helping the industry and its people as well as getting involved in the really big issues that will shape it – and of course be part of the team consulting and advocating on those issues” he says.
“Leveraging off those experiences, insights and networks has allowed me to make a very real contribution to the community I currently work in.
“It’s about getting all stakeholders (internal and external) to understand not just the operations of an airport but also what it looks like from an economics, business, communications, planning, cost, income and infrastructure point of view.”
It’s a big task, but one Salomon says is part of the job’s appeal.
“I enjoy the varied nature of the industry, dealing with my industry peers, and taking pride in the numerous infrastructure, commercial and organisational wins we have had,” he says.
“My biggest pleasure however comes from interacting with my department – they are dedicated and passionate, trusted advisors, working together and delivering innovative solutions often ahead of their time.
“I am looking forward to working with our new Shire CEO to deliver a few of my bucket list projects including our master plan, commercial expansion and ramping up our economic development contribution during the next financial year.”