Launceston Airport is preparing its latest tilt at the Australian Airports Association annual awards after performing what general manager Paul Hodgen labels “an airside flip”.
The flip is the latest in a series of changes at the northern Tasmanian airport as it moves to make itself an attractive alternative to its neighbour in Hobart and the state’s tourism gateway.
The booming tourism industry has seen traffic at Launceston grow to almost 1.4 million passengers a year and the airport has been sprucing itself up to accommodate the tourists and give locals a better experience.
Outside the terminal it has already expanded its parking area, undertaken a $12 million runway overlay and is currently working on remediating the apron and one of the taxiways.
There’s still work to be done on the terminal forecourt and façade but it’s inside where many of the customer-centric changes have occurred.
Hodgen says this was due to a confluence of events which saw contracts for the terminal retail concessions ending as the airport commissioned a study on its retail footprint.
“We were trying to benchmark ourselves against other regional airports and that came back saying that we were woefully under spec’d for a terminal footprint and passenger throughput of our size,’’ he says.
The airport at the time catered for about 1.25 million passengers and had an underwhelming café, a small speciality shop and a small coffee franchise.
A review resulted in a 650 square metre extension at the front of the building to house a new food and beverage offering and take advantage of the airport’s stunning views.
“Our investment was targeted very much at creating greater ‘sense of place’,’’ Hodgen says.
“This included the introduction of timber cladding into the building to give it a Tasmanian look and feel.
“When we went out to tender those retail contracts we targeted the big end of town. We wanted to engage some of the top tier operators but with a really tight brief that said this must look, feel, smell and taste Tasmanian through and through.’’
The speciality shop operator took to the brief easily and retail giant Lagadere (LS Travel Retail) produced a concept called The Launceston Store.
“It’s just brilliant in terms of its application and the gifting area in particular,’’ Hodgen says. “We have our Tasmanian wines and whiskies and honeys and that iconic Tasmanian Bobbie the Lavender Bear.’’
The food and beverage side was taken up by Emirates Leisure Retail Australia.
“They partnered with James Boag Brewery, and you can’t get much more Launcestonian than James Boag beer,’’ says Hodgen.
“They produced the James Boag Upper Deck Bar and Restaurant and, in fact, they won a FAB award for best sense of place in the Asia-Pacific region.”
However, the airport still had one problem: unlike most airports in the country, 90 percent of its retail was on the wrong side of security.
“We had one very tiny gate café down in the gate lounge area,’’ Hodgen notes.
“Everything else, in its entirety, was on the wrong side.
“Because it’s such an intimate airport, people could sit and be having their beers and they would look out of the window until the aircraft landed and then everyone would run to security at once.
“We’d have queues going out of the door.’’
The airport had taken over the security screening authority from Qantas and the situation wasn’t helped when the airlines started re-arranging schedules to land at the same time.
A second X-ray machine was needed but so was something else.
Enter the airside flip, a decision to move all of the airport’s retail to the airside environment on one night in September. The project was two years in the planning but the final execution occurred in a just a six-hour overnight period in readiness for the first morning departure.
“We completely re-oriented security screening and upgraded it,’’ Hodgen says.
“So now we have check-in effectively acting as a governor for presentation rates at security. Our presentation rate and flow through security screening has been smoothed, we no longer get the delays.
“And the big thing, and what it’s all about, is creating dwell in an airside environment in a state where people are not anxious.”
The change means people are going airside 20 minutes earlier than they would previously. To help them relax, the airport has installed large-scale digital boards it uses for both flight information and marketing.
The airport chief says the locals, although initially wary, have taken the change to heart and the travellers, who loved it from the outset are breezing through screening, then resting, relaxing and shopping.
The airlines also like it because they’re not seeing security delays or problems with people failing to board.
“The building just functions so much better now, it’s a matter of extracting greater value out of what was an existing asset,’’ he says.
Hodgen is hoping to take out the major airport award at the 2018 AAA National Airport Industry Awards later this year and will also be trying for the project or commercial excellence award.
That he’s a big fan of the awards is probably not surprising given Launceston has won the major airport gong for three consecutive years and pocketed the commercial award in 2016.
He says that run of success has had a great spin-off in terms of instilling a sense of pride in the airport’s staff of 29 people.
“That was a great endorsement and the staff take great pride in being able to quote that,’’ he says.
It has also been a source of pride for the community which, like many regional areas, has a sense of ownership over the airport.
But there are other advantages to entering, according to Hodgen.
Launceston Airport punches above its weight, the city is the nation’s 21st most populous but the airport is Australia’s 12th busiest.
Nonetheless, the inclination of many people visiting Tasmania is to fly to Hobart and Hodgen says the national coverage the AAA awards generate helps boost Launceston’s profile.
He also sees advantages in the way the process encourages staff to look back at their achievements.
“I think as aviation managers and aviation professionals, you do tend to get very focused on everyday operational challenges and the here and now,’’ he says.
“You’re also looking forward strategically on where we’re going to go.
“It’s so rare to actually look back, even over the course of the year.”
Hodgen — a 40-year industry veteran who worked for British Airways, British Midland and Jetstar as well as on Melbourne Airport’s acclaimed Terminal 4 project — says he makes a point of doing this with the Launceston team.
“It’s really therapeutic and I think the process of compiling the submissions for the award, certainly for each of the sections, forces you to review just what has been achieved over the year.’’
The awards also call on airports to demonstrate progress on a wide range of fronts such as the community, the environment and infrastructure.
“To be able to carry off the awards does require you to be able to provide evidence of initiatives right the way across the board,’’ he says.
“Again, that’s good for business because if it’s going to be front of mind it’s going to force you to make sure you’re scanning your entire business as to where you need to be growing.”
Other pluses include the ability to use submissions as the basis for other awards in areas such as tourism and to recognise partners such as architects and builders.
“In 2016, we won both the major airport award and the commercial excellence award for the retail build,’’ he says.
“It was a great opportunity for us to recognise our partners, whether it was Emirates Leisure Retail Australia the operators, Buchan the architects or Fairbrother the local contractors that had constructed the retail extensions.
“It’s not just about the airport company.’’
Nominations are now open for the 2018 AAA National Industry Awards. To enter your airport, download a nomination form and submit your entry by 5pm on Friday 10 August.
An award-winning journalist, Steve began covering aviation in the United States in the early nineties before returning to Australia later that decade and editing The Australian’s aviation section for 17 years. He is editor of Airline Ratings and has co-authored books on industry initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.
Steve has joined the AAA to write interesting and informative editorial on the aviation industry.