Once one of the few global capitals without an international air service, Canberra now has two of the world’s best airlines slugging it out for the capital’s affluent passengers.
The arrival of Qatar Airways on February 12 gave Canberra Airport its first ever daily international service and set up a new competitive dynamic for Canberrans.
Residents of the nation’s capital can now head either directly to Singapore with Singapore Airlines or choose to fly through Sydney to get to Qatar’s capital, Doha.
In both cases they can link into substantial networks to take them to destinations around the globe.
And Canberra Airport managing director Stephen Byron is determined to keep the international ball rolling.
The airport expects to introduce duty free shopping for arriving passengers and will see the arrival in coming months of facial recognition technology that will speed up immigration and border control processing.
It is also pitching for narrowbody trans-Tasman services to complement its new longer-haul international routes.
Singapore and Qatar started services to Canberra despite scepticism from Qantas about the economic viability of direct international services from nation’s capital.
The journey began on 21 September 2016, when Singapore Airlines launched the Singapore-Canberra-Wellington “Capital Express” route amid great fanfare.
Although the airline experienced good numbers on flights to Singapore, the demand between Canberra and Wellington was not as good.
The service also used older aircraft and did not have the daily frequency business people and government officials prefer.
An additional dynamic was introduced when, just 69 days after Singapore started its service, Qatar announced it was also targeting Canberra.
The prospect of competition from Qatar prompted Singapore to announce in January that it would upgrade its Canberra service to daily operations from May 1 and add a fifth daily flight to Sydney.
As part of this, it announced it would replace its Boeing 777-200 with a four class Boeing 777-300ER.
The 264-seat B777-300ER features four first class seats, 48 in business class, 28 in premium economy and 184 in economy.
“It’s a four-class aircraft very well suited to this market for Singapore and moving to the daily service is what the business and government market need,’’ says Byron.
“The two things we jointly identified with Singapore Airlines as needed was for the frequency to be daily and …the upgrade in product for the business part of the market.”
The revamped service will ultimately compete with a similar aircraft armed with Qatar’s stunning Qsuite business class when it enters the market on a permanent basis.
Qatar showcased the new suite on its inaugural flight to Canberra on February 12 and Qatar chief executive Akbar Al Baker said the product should be on the route on a full-time basis from June.
In the interim, it will use a 358-seat aircraft using its older but still impressive business class.
Byron says the airport had been ready for international services for some time with a runway capable of taking widebody aircraft and three international gates.
This allows it to handle two widebody aircraft simultaneously as well an international service using a single-aisle aircraft.
A possibility for the latter is a trans-Tasman service.
The airport is talking to local airlines about this first, but another contender is an Air New Zealand service linking Canberra to the Kiwi carrier’s Auckland hub and then on to North and South America.
In terms of product, Byron says the airport has built an international departure lounge that meets business class standards.
“I think that fitted the bill for Singapore Airlines, including the transit passengers going through to Wellington, but it also serves well for the Qatar clientele,’’ he says.
Having two international carriers will also allow the airport’s duty free operator to expand its offering to arrivals, complementing the outbound and collect on return service it already provides.
“The other big change will be on the freight side,’’ Byron says. “I think having the daily service to Singapore but also having the service to the Middle East will be a significant stimulus to get on board an on-airport international freight operator.
“We’re prepared to fund the infrastructure, including the cool rooms, for such an operation and there’s obviously a lot of produce that’s in the region that almost drives past Canberra Airport to get to Sydney to get in the traffic to be delayed.’’
The airport has been working with VisitCanberra and the ACT Government on campaigns to capitalise on the new services but Byron expects a boost from simply having the city represented on international booking systems and in the airlines’ global networks.
“What we’re seeing is that by being plugged in the ground into all of the cities that these airlines fly to, whether it’s in Asia or in Europe, you’re suddenly on the radar map through the booking system and the travel agents,’’ he says.
“Before we never were, so our position has gone from being zero to a smorgasbord of options.”
Canberra has also been named by travel guide Lonely Planet as number three in its list of must-see destinations in 2018.
“We’re not saying we’re the third best city to visit in the world ahead of New York and London, but in terms of the rising must-see new places we’re number three,’’ he says. “Only one other Australian city has ever been on the list and that was three years ago with Adelaide at number five.”
In the longer term, Byron believes there is scope for direct flights between Canberra and destinations such as Doha.
However, Qatar chief executive Akbar Al Baker raised a technical issue during a recent visit to Canberra about runway length.
The Qatar boss said the airline was unable to fly direct from Canberra because the runway was too short and needed to be at least 4300m long to allow a fully-laden Boeing 777-300ER carrying enough fuel for the long flight to Doha to take off.
Byron believes that is an issue that can be solved.
“We can build an extension,’’ he says. “We will check if 600 metres which we have approved in our master plan is enough and we will develop a plan in conjunction with Qatar and other operators in terms of the solution and the timeframe.
“In my view, we have three to four years to deliver the solution while the viability of the direct service grows to a daily level.”
Photo above: Qatar’s first service touches down at Canberra Airport. Photo: Qatar/Kurt Ams.