When Sarah Renner was 12 years old, she told her dad she wanted to travel. She had made her mind up that she was going to be a flight attendant when she grew up.
“He said why be a flight attendant, when I could fly the plane,” Renner says.
The conversation had an impact. Three years later Renner could, in fact, fly a plane and has since enjoyed an extensive career in aviation.
The trained pilot is now Chief Executive Officer at Hobart Airport, and says strong family support and a drive to always improve has supported her career in aviation.
Sharing her insights at the AAA’s women in airports breakfast as part of its national conference in Brisbane, Renner reflected on a lifelong passion for aviation.
“I think the diversity of aviation and the fact that you’re learning something new every day is wonderful,” she says. “It’s never without a challenge which is all part of the fun.”
That diversity has come to the fore during her first year at Hobart Airport.
Its runway extension was recently completed ahead of schedule, allowing the airport to accommodate the wide body aircraft required for direct international services.
A new $13 million freight precinct is set to change the game for local producers, with the facilities to be operational by the end of the year – At the moment, local exporters must move their goods via road to the north of the state before being shipped to either Sydney or Melbourne.
With high value perishable goods such as crayfish, abalone, berries and stone fruit very popular in the Asian market, the freight facility will create new trade opportunities and inject significant time savings into the supply chain for local producers.
It’s one of the reasons the airport is so intrinsically linked to the local community, with Renner noting 61 per cent of people travelling to the island state come through the airport.
Renner says this means the airport has a real commitment to the community as an active participant in the city’s events and tourism economy.
The $4.5 million terminal refresh currently underway is part of that commitment, with the update to be ready in time to accommodate a growing passenger base during the peak summer season.
There are also plans for a larger terminal upgrade in the future as the airport works with tourism and government partners to entice direct international passenger services to the apple isle.
A Major Development Plan (MDP) will be submitted for approval in the coming months, with the project expected to effectively double the terminal footprint over time and provide space for border processing.
“Hobart Airport is one of the fastest growing airports in Australia; we’ve had six per cent year-on-year growth for the past three years, and we expect such fantastic growth to continue,” she says.
“That’s driven off the back of really strong interest in Tasmania from the rest of the world.”
The airport doubled the number of domestic destinations it serves and facilitated a record 2.6 million passengers in the last financial year, with international services now a major focus.
“We’ve had the fastest international visitation growth of any state, up 20 per cent on the previous year,” Renner says
“Interestingly, international visitor spend increased 32 per cent over the same period, so we’re actually attracting the high yield tourist that really values the Tasmanian wilderness and produce.
“Our leading market is China, closely followed by the US and then very strong markets in Hong Kong, the UK, New Zealand and Singapore.”
Tasmania also sees strong repeat visitation among both domestic and international travellers, confirming the long-term potential of new services.
Renner says a recent Federal Government decision to require airports to fund the cost of establishing new border processing facilities had been a setback.
Previously, the Government has funded the fit out and specialist equipment required for new border force personnel. That cost is now being passed on to airports, increasing establishment costs for those airports looking to start international services for the first time.
Renner says while the airport and border force personnel are working well on the project together, the changing funding arrangements are an impediment for communities seeking to build and grow international tourism and trade.
“We were surprised by the new approach,” Renner observes. “It could result in at least an additional $10 million cost to the project that Hobart Airport will have to bear.”
Despite this challenge, Renner says international services in the near future remains a strong possibility, and something the Tasmanian government is also very supportive of.
She also believes there is much to be optimistic about for women seeking rewarding careers in aviation.
She cites former airport chief executives Kerrie Mather and Julieanne Alroe as role models for women advancing their career in the industry.
Starting as an aviation graduate, Renner was asked to complete parts of a civil engineering degree before she could work in the industry.
Despite her surprise at the request, which harked back to the then Federal Airports Corporation’s traditional focus on civil engineering, she completed the additional study in order to secure her first role.
“At the time, there were only a few executive women but certainly I have seen that change over time. More and more women have entered into the industry and moved onto very senior roles,” she says.
Renner’s long and varied career of over 20 years, including 17 years at Melbourne Airport, has involved a wide range of roles from airfield and emergency management to planning and retail.
“That diversity and opportunity to move into different aspects of airport operations has certainly helped in my current role,” she says.
Some time overseas at Harvard Business School was also an important step.
“I was always really clear to ensure I’d grow professionally and I made a decision to become a generalist and not a specialist, taking the better part of the year off to study overseas.
“My leadership journey hasn’t always been rosy – I have learnt some hard lessons along the way which has only grown me as a leader
“My focus has been to have fun, respect and empathy, to work for your team and always seek out those with a different opinion to ensure the best decision possible.”