The Gold Coast Airport is preparing for a $300 million upgrade as the numbers keep stacking up.
Over the next 15 years that figure is expected to be closer to 25 times the current population as arrivals and departures grow at their fastest rate on record.
This is the challenge faced by airport operator Queensland Airports Ltd (QAL) which just a decade ago spent $100 million upgrading the facility.
Now it is gearing up for a $300 million expansion, dubbed Project LIFT, which is designed to double Gold Coast Airport’s existing capacity to cope with an expected 16 million passengers annually by 2031.
The airport is about to get its biggest test in April next year when Australia’s tourism capital hosts the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
QAL was due to deliver the first stage of Project LIFT ahead of the Games, but late last year it decided to postpone a start to construction over fears that the work may not be completed on time.
However, Marion Charlton, the chief operating officer at Gold Coast Airport, remains confident there is sufficient capacity to handle the expected visitor surge. This is despite conceding the airport already operates above capacity on some days.
“While that’s not sustainable in the long-term without physical expansion of the terminal, we are satisfying current demand,” Charlton says.
“That is why we’re progressing with Project LIFT. With that said, almost 24,000 passengers passed through the terminal on our busiest day on record on January 3, 2016.”
That compares with about 17,600 passengers on an average day in 2016.
In the meantime, Gold Coast Airport is implementing improvements to check-in and baggage collection to speed up passenger processing to alleviate some of the pressure points during peak periods.
Under the revised timetable for the upgrade, QAL plans to have the first stage of Project LIFT completed by 2019. This will include a new three-level terminal adjacent to the southern end of the existing facility. This will feature full-length glass panels as part of a sustainability focus to provide more natural light inside the terminal.
The new design also brings all-weather air bridges to Gold Coast Airport for the first time, although not across all boarding gates. The airport will maintain its long tradition of tarmac boarding for some flights in keeping with the budget airline model.
Among other improvements are security measures that will include advanced facial recognition systems.
Preliminary earthworks have already started on the first stage, although this is currently limited to apron works.
The second stage, scheduled for completion in 2021, will involve a redevelopment of the existing terminal building.
Charlton says the $300 million investment at Gold Coast Airport has been driven by a ‘steady incline’ in passenger demand for some time.
“As an airport we’re very good at forecasting and planning for the future,” she says.
The airport welcomed a record six million passengers in 2015. A year later this rose to 6.4 million and, at the current growth rate, 2017 could come close to breaching seven million passengers.
While domestic numbers into the Gold Coast are growing faster than the national average, the big gains are coming from international visitors, which were up 19 per cent in 2016.
“This is very encouraging for our airport and indeed the city,” says Charlton.
“The Gold Coast as a whole is outperforming many other locations.”
The foundation for the current growth phase was laid a decade ago when QAL poured part of its $100 million expansion into extending the runway to 2500 metres.
This opened up the Gold Coast for direct flights from Asia, India and the Middle East. Now there are nine airlines servicing domestic and international routes from the airport, with 44,000 individual flights recorded in 2016.
Martin Winter, the CEO of Gold Coast Tourism Corporation, sees this capacity increase as the cornerstone of the Gold Coast’s surging tourism sector.
“Air capacity and visitation go hand in glove,” says Winter.
“The success of tourism on the Gold Coast, which in the past eight years has grown from around 9.5 million visitors annually to 13.5 million, is mirrored closely by the increase in capacity into the Gold Coast and Brisbane airports.”
Winter also points out that Gold Coast Airport is punching above its weight compared to other Australian airports, largely because it is almost exclusively driven by the leisure market.
“It doesn’t have the political travel or the business travel of larger cities, which makes the result even more exceptional,” he says.
The international visitor numbers, particularly from China, best reflect Gold Coast Airport’s growth.
While New Zealand remains Australia’s biggest international tourist market, the Chinese have dominated inbound visitor numbers on the Gold Coast for more than a year.
“There are now more than 100,000 Chinese visitors than New Zealanders coming the Gold Coast each year,” says Winter.
“Visitors from China account for about 295,000 visitors annually and this is growing at a compound rate of 30 per cent per annum, while the New Zealand numbers are more or less steady.
“The Gold Coast also gets 27 per cent of all Chinese visitors to Australia and they don’t necessarily fly in internationally. They might fly into Sydney, see the Opera House, then come up to the Gold Coast, go to a theme park, see some native animals and put their feet in the water.”
From an economic perspective Project LIFT is expected to add another 180 full-time jobs to the airport, building on the 2037 jobs it supported in 2016. Job numbers are forecast to surge to 9000 within 20 years.
More broadly the expansion is expected to deliver a fourfold increase in the Gold Coast Airport’s economic contribution to the Gold Coast, with the gross regional product rising from $545 million in 2016 to $2.3 billion by 2037.
Charlton also sees new public transport infrastructure, particularly light rail, as integral to this growth story.
“Light rail is a critical part of our integrated ground transport plans and will help deliver the kind of public transport people expect at airports in major cities,” she says.
“This is particularly important for the Gold Coast with so many visitors expecting easy and seamless connections to and from the airport.
“Strong growth in passenger numbers at our airport continues to strengthen the case for the light rail extension.
“We have made provision in our 2017 masterplan, which guides the airport’s development for the next 20 years, for a light rail station in front of our terminal and we would like to see the service continue south to Coolangatta.”
For more about growth, infrastructure, major precincts and projects – see Business Gold Coast.