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Coffs Harbour ready for the next decade as regional tourism hub

Coffs Harbour may be missing an apostrophe but the local airport isn’t missing out on growth opportunities.

The predominantly leisure-driven market has seen passenger numbers rise by almost a third over the last decade from 315,000 in 2008-09 to 418,000.

Airport manager Dennis Martin says the airport has been fortunate to see long-term passenger growth as people have moved into the North Coast NSW town and tourism has blossomed.

But the airport has also benefited from a decision by the Coffs Harbour City Council to bring in Martin to set it up as a separate business unit that would be commercially viable.

The airport boss has been active in tourism and community development since arriving in Coffs with Ansett in 1984.

In addition to roles in various community groups, he has served or chaired local tourism and marketing committees and established the Coffs Collective, a group of tourism and transport operators to promote Coffs as major domestic tourism destination.

His efforts led to a Coffs Citizen of the Year award in 1998 and a Medal of Order of Australia (OAM) in 2017.

The council decision allowed Martin to introduce measures such as paid parking and long-term pricing agreements that helped the airport boost its financial health and invest in infrastructure.

He is not a council employee and has worked hard to change the traditional view that airports are a council engineering and infrastructure challenge.

Dennis Martin

“I’m here under contract and that was my role — to come in a set it up as a business, to make sure it’s profitable and can stand up on its own two feet going forward.

“And we’ve been able to achieve that.”

The transition hasn’t always been a popular one. Paid parking now provides about 30 per cent of the airport’s revenue but caused some community consternation initially.

But Martin says it couldn’t be ignored.

“Car parking’s quite expensive infrastructure and it’s got be able pay for itself,’’ he observes.

Coffs today boasts services by all the major airlines except Jetstar as well as by Fly Corporate.

While it received a $5.1 million NSW Government grant, it has been able to largely fund about $20 million worth of infrastructure improvements over the past five years.

These include resurfacing and regrooving its main 03/21 runway, a parking apron redesign and extension to accommodate up to five free moving single-aisle jets and the strengthening of associated taxiways.

There were also major extensions to the terminal that included a 25 per cent increase in floor space for arrivals.

“We put in extra baggage belts, extra check-in counters, improved security and built a new Qantas lounge,’’ says Martin.

“I’ve also built a future lounge for Virgin… so we took the opportunity while we were doing an upgrade to cater for the future.

“So we’ve really got the place ready for the next five to 10 years at least without having to spend too much at all on infrastructure.”

Martin admits — although with fingers crossed given the sometimes-fickle nature of tourism — that planning is helped by the steady nature of long-term growth at Coffs.

“You can pretty well plan for the future, as long as you don’t go silly, with a good chance for being able to pay for your infrastructure and get a return on your investment,’’ he says.

“Having said that, when Ansett went bust it caused some heartache.

“But again, in Coffs Harbour’s case, we were quickly able to convince Virgin Blue, as it was at the time, to fill the void.

“That didn’t replace Ansett number-wise, but it certainly built up to be a good replacement.

“So Coffs is the sort of destination where you’ll always attract good quality air services.’’

The airport’s biggest market is Sydney, which has up to 12 flights day with a mixture of high-frequency Q400 services, Virgin 737-800 jets and Tigerair Australia Airbus A320s.

Coffs was the first regional airport in Australia to attract Tigerair services, in this case to Sydney, and the thinner Coffs-Brisbane service was the inaugural route for Fly Corporate.

Martin says the arrival of low-cost carriers has helped spur growth with low fares that have stimulated the market.

“It’s attracted a market that didn’t travel by air previously, there’s no doubt about that,’’ he says.

“Tiger’s generated a new market that hasn’t, I think, diluted to any great extent the legacy carriers.’’

The Sydney market is a combination of business and leisure traffic and Martin sees scope for passenger growth because of the capacity on the route.

But it’s Melbourne where he sees the biggest opportunity.

“Melbourne is more a leisure market — there are four A320 services a week down to Melbourne — but I see Melbourne as having the greatest potential going forward,’’ he says

“It’s a huge market and lot of it has traditionally flown over the top to the Gold Coast, Sunshine Coast-type areas.

“But we’re in there with our hand up pretty high now saying Coffs is not a bad place to come to either.

“And there’s also a lot of VFR between Victoria and Northern New South Wales. A lot of people move up here in their retirement and they’ve still got the kids and family back in Melbourne.”

Martin is maintaining a watching brief on potential international services but says this is difficult given the alternative connections through major cities and the fact the airport doesn’t have border security.

He believes there is potential for flights to New Zealand but this would need to see the border control free up between the two countries to allow domestic-like travel.

General aviation is not a big growth area at Coffs but it has attracted a helicopter maintenance and repair organisation, Eagle Australasia, that services South-East Asia and the Pacific.

A joint venture between Australian company Aero Assist and Eagle Copters, the company has 28 skilled workers and Martin says it is looking to more than double that over the next two to three years.

More immediate plans include the launch of a business enterprise park looking at a mixture of aviation-related, light industrial and technology businesses.

Inspired by a similar park at Canberra Airport, Martin is optimistic Coffs’ position between Sydney and Brisbane, combined with the availability of good air, road and rails services, will allow it to attract good quality businesses.

He also sees the airport’s town-centre location as a plus.

“We hope to be marketing the new subdivision in the next couple of months, certainly by the first of July,’’ he says.

“We really don’t know until we go the market what’s out there but we’re putting our sights pretty high.

“We’re hoping to get a hotel in there early in the piece — we’ll start with service stations, hire cars and those sorts of things and try and find some new technology.”

And the missing apostrophe?

It was initially dropped by the local newspaper because it was felt the short form of the town’s name didn’t look right in headings and the like when written as “Coff’s”.

But it was not until 1968 that the apostrophe was officially axed by the by the NSW Geographical Names Board.

Photo above: Coffs Harbour Airport. Photo: Seen Australia.

By Steve Creedy

About Steve Creedy

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.

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