Technology and safety will play an essential role in Avalon’s bounce back
Avalon Airport Chief Executive Justin Giddings is jubilant his facility is returning to scheduled airline services after essentially serving as an aircraft parking lot for much of the year.
The number of aircraft parked at Avalon has reduced from 40 to eight and the airport is looking at double-daily Jetstar flights to Sydney starting from December 18.
This will be the first time Jetstar has operated between the two destinations since March 31 and the two daily services represent about 40 per cent of the capacity operated last year.
The airline spiced up the deal with fares starting at $71 one-way and Avalon added to the incentive by reducing short-term parking rates during the first month of operations to give people the first two hours free and cutting the daily rate to just $5.
Giddings is optimistic pent-up demand for domestic travel will see the airport’s domestic roster bounce back by Easter 2021.
He says he’s confident the airport’s mainly visiting friends and relatives (VFR) and leisure travel base will quickly fill the two flights per day Jetstar plans to add from December 18.
“We’ll quickly get to double that or maybe even triple that, hopefully in January or February,’’ he says.
“And I’m really hopeful we’re back to full domestic capacity by Easter.”
While times have been hard for all Australian airports, those in Victoria did it particularly tough as the state was hit by the much publicised second wave and resultant lockdown.
Giddings says his target is seven daily flights and an annual passenger throughput close to the airline’s previous level of 900,000 travellers.
Avalon is well placed for travellers wanting to visit Victoria’s famed Great Ocean Road and the fascinating volcanic landscape of the state’s western regions.
Giddings’ optimism is also partly underscored by discussions with a Vietnamese airline which has seen stronger traffic than 2019 because travellers cannot head overseas, although he notes a potential downside is the loss of Chinese internationals travelling domestically.
“If I can get more than 900,000 or even 850,000, we’d be doing well and it’s not a silly hope,’’ he says.
“I think Easter will be a boom. People might feel they can’t get away this summer because they haven’t had time to book.
“Easter and the school holidays around that will be the first opportunity to really travel and that’s the busiest time of the year for us.”
Avalon has been preparing for the return to flying by sprucing up the airport and taking advantage of the lull to update its technology.
It is work, says Giddings, that would have been more difficult to do had the airport been fully operational.
“When this first happened, we set about establishing a COVID plan to try to work through how returning to service would look,’’ he notes.
“We had just purchased some new check-in kiosks and we went to the supplier and they were able to make them touchless,’’
“They’re just installing them right now but we’ll have touchless kiosks. I think they’re the first of their type in Australia and you’ll be able to use your head and your eyes to select buttons on the keypad so you don’t have to touch the screen.
“And it actually does work — I used it the other day when we had some media down here and it works well.”
Also being introduced are new touchless automated bag drops that scan a boarding pass and bag tag as well as CT X-Ray facilities that allow passengers to leave their laptops in their bags.
When travellers return, they will find a refreshed and re-organised terminal optimised for COVID safety. This includes an increased cleaning regime and social distancing.
Masks are still required in Victoria but even if the rule is relaxed, Giddings says Avalon will still require staff to wear them to give people confidence.
“We’ve gone to a lot of trouble to make sure people feel safe,’’ he says.
“People have to have the confidence to fly so we’ll have a COVID officer walking around and we’ll have somebody constantly cleaning the chairs and touch points.’
The airport boss says the effort to update the airport assisted moves, endorsed by owners the Fox family, to keep staff employed.
“We’ve been re-deploying many of our staff, so a lot of catering staff went on and repainted our terminal,’’ Giddings says.
“We suspended our cleaning contractor and used our staff to clean and we did that with security to a certain extent.
“We were also able to redeploy some staff to other businesses on the airport or associated with the airport.
“So it’s been a busy time. It’s been a massive change — I think that’s probably the best description.”
Although the resumption of many international services is still a distant possibility, Giddings has been continuing talks with overseas airlines and is among those who believe that troubled Malaysian carrier and former customer AirAsia will survive the pandemic.
He also sees an opportunity for the airport to expand its domestic network and potentially take advantage of “travel bubbles”.
“We currently do not have services to Brisbane and this would be an obvious destination for us,’’ he says.
“A few years ago, Jetstar operated three services a day, and now with Brisbane’s second runway we believe this should be reinstated.
“New Zealand would also be an obvious destination. And some of the Pacific islands.”
By Steve Creedy
Story picture credit: SITA
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.