Following a transition from local government to private ownership and the appointment of a new CEO, the Port Hedland International Airport in Western Australia’s north is aiming to become the country’s best regional airport. Here’s how CEO and Managing Director, Mitchell Cameron, plans to do it.

shutterstock_206460943Since the PHIA Group took over ownership of the Port Hedland International Airport from the local government in March 2016, there has been a number of changes.

The airport has hired a new team, formed a Port Hedland International Airport Community Liaison Group, procured new contractors, updated its website and marketing, and has now commenced the first phase of the Capital Project upgrades.

Regional challenges

New CEO Mitchell Cameron, who commenced in the top job in February 2016, is one of the driving forces behind these improvements, but he said they haven’t come without challenges.

“The airport was transitioned from local government ownership to provide a better focus on core business. Commencing with an operational review resulted in streamlining systems, and a refocus of operations to provide improved safety and customer experience, to name just two outcomes. Continual improvement is the ongoing target,” Mr Cameron said.

Mr Cameron said one of the challenges associated with the airport’s location has been the transition from construction to operation in Western Australia’s mining areas, and the effect this has had on the economy and the number of people travelling in the region.

“While many have reported this change to be new news, it was well known that the construction phase would require more workers than operational activity. The issue has partly been that many had hoped the so called boom would continue and it seems some might have got their timing wrong,” Mr Cameron said.

“Port Hedland International Airport is the only airport north of Perth to fly to interstate and international destinations. My task is to supplement our current passenger numbers. Put in simple terms, we need to fill the planes to keep them flying.

“The strategy is therefore to engage the enlarged Pilbara catchment area so more people utilise PHIA as their airport of choice.”

Switching views on air travel

This push to change the thinking around air travel in Western Australia and the Pilbara region is the main focus for Mr Cameron moving forward and was one of the things that initially attracted him to the role. It’s also the motivation behind upcoming infrastructure upgrades at the airport.

“The opportunity to grow the only international and nationally connected airport north of Perth was the key attraction. That idea has been developed into a campaign to drive an increase in passenger numbers. The initial campaign asks the question, “Where can you fly from Port Hedland International Airport on a Saturday?”

“It’s quicker to fly from PHIA to Asia than it is to fly down to Perth then Asia, not to mention the fact that if you are actually wanting to fly to Asia, you have to fly back over PHIA – it does not make sense. Our Pilbara promotions have therefore been centred around this time saving benefit.

“In addition, we have committed to spending $40 million on capital works by March 2021. Airport capital works should always start from the income earning assets – that is, runways, taxiways, airfield lighting, aprons, then terminal and front of house.

“Our current program is to review each of these assets with a view to allocating part of the $40 million capex in a medium term capex budget plan,” Mr Cameron said.

Mr Cameron said delivering the $40 million capex program in the first five years of operation is the airport’s key priority.

“These projects include preparing a new 20-year master plan and land use report for the site, reviewing and maintaining the airfield assets, and designing and delivering an airport terminal upgrade to the international standard for 700,000 passengers while the airport remains open and fully functional.”

Creating strategic partnerships

Being able to engage and retain high quality staff is essential for all airports, but it can be more challenging for airports in regional and remote areas, as they have smaller populations.

Mr Cameron said PHIA has made this work by transitioning a number of key staff as well as recruiting new team members.

“Rarely do you have the opportunity to build a new team from scratch and I’m very happy to say that our team is working well together and already achieving some of the initial targets and strategic goals,” Mr Cameron said.

Besides building internal relationships, Mr Cameron said a key to PHIA’s future growth is creating solid partnerships with airlines, including its two main carriers Qantas and Virgin.

“Air travel is increasing around the world, especially in Asia. This is both an opportunity and challenge.

“The challenge is that airlines have many options open to them, and with Asian air travel increasing at a far greater rate than local travel (which in some cases is consolidating), then convincing an airline to deploy their very mobile asset to your Australian regional airport over an Asian airport is a hard sell.

“The opportunity for PHIA is to present business cases to airlines to introduce new flights to provide better connectivity.”

Mr Cameron said in the Pilbara, and at many remote airports, people have different travel choices.

“They can choose to fly either from your airport or another airport; drive themselves, including to another airport to catch a flight that they could have caught from your airport; or catch public transport,” Mr Cameron said.

“Our job is to work in partnership with the community to give them enough reason to choose to use our airport. The plans we have to develop the airport will see marked changes for the community in terms of facilities and air travel options.”

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