by Jessica Dickers, Editor, Infrastructure magazine

As the country emerges from COVID-19 and travel is slowly coming back, the conversation around the critical infrastructure needed for airports is firmly back on the agenda. In his presentation at the 2022 Critical Infrastructure Summit, Simon Gandy, Chief of Infrastructure at Melbourne Airport, explored the impacts of the pandemic and future plans for the airport, including the proposed third runway.

Melbourne Airport is Victoria’s gateway to Australia and the world. Its close proximity to the CBD, located within one of the city’s largest growth areas, an undeveloped land bank of around 775 acres, and curfew-free and aircraft movement cap-free status, allow for a lot of exciting growth opportunities.

Before COVID-19, the airport operated more than 675 flights per day to over 74 destinations, with an average of 102,000 daily passengers. By 2pm each day, the airport would have handled around 60 per cent of the domestic flights flying in Australia, including Sydney-Melbourne which is one of the busiest routes in the world.

The airport’s infrastructure includes four terminals and two runways, and contributes around $20 billion per annum into the Victorian economy. Then in March 2020 everything changed.

The impacts of the pandemic

“To say that we have been on a bit of a roller coaster ride is probably the biggest understatement,” Simon Gandy, Melbourne Airport‘s Chief of Infrastructure, said.

Mr Gandy is an experienced executive leader with more than 30 years of aviation experience transforming airports to deliver high levels of growth and market share. He said the last few years have been extremely challenging, not just for Melbourne Airport, but all of Australia’s aviation and tourism industry.

“Airports aren’t designed to be empty, they come alive with passengers and the day-to-day operations of enabling people to connect with loved ones, experiences and businesses. Airports and tourism were hit early on in the pandemic and have been one of the last industries to start their recovery.

We had an extended period of time where we were down to around less than one per cent of our revenue,” Mr Gandy said.

“It was an extremely difficult time for not only our business but our service providers, our retailers and of course our customer airlines.”

As an airport, it was classified as an essential service and remained open, which created challenges in itself, but there were also decisions that had to be made all the way through this period, one of which was around how it should adapt its operating base and its investment plan.

“We’d literally just taken to our board our biggest investment portfolio for the next five years in February 2020. And then in March/April, we were going back saying, ‘we need to reprioritise and scale down,’” Mr Gandy said.

“Reducing the capital was both a huge challenge, but also an opportunity to really focus on those projects that are essential to keep progressing right now to not only maintain a safe and secure operating environment but to progress work more efficiently and safeguard for the future.

“We were able to make changes without having passengers around, so we could do it faster and cheaper.”

A number of projects were continued during this time, including critical airfield maintenance works, terminal upgrade works in both the international and domestic terminals, our amenities upgrade program and safeguarding for new security legislation. The team also maintained progress with the long-term planning for the future third runway.

Mr Gandy said the airport is now starting to see traffic building back up and this was reinforced over the recent Easter period with new daily record passengers for domestic travellers of over 90,000 some days.

“We’re now averaging around about the 70 per cent mark in terms of recovery compared to pre-COVID and the forward signs continue to look promising. Whilst forecasts remain difficult to predict with confidence, our attention is shifting back to what future growth investment may be needed and in what timeframe.”

The master plan

Mr Gandy said that the airport’s Master Plan is the blueprint for how it will be developed moving forward. On its 20-year plan is the third runway, which will be located to the west of the existing cross runway system. The plan also continues to safeguard for a future airport rail link.

“We’re in continued discussions with the State and Federal Governments on the timing and location for the rail link as our teams work together to ensure the offering is really great for both Melburnians and visitors,” Mr Gandy said.

The overall long-term vision for the airport features a four runway ‘hashtag’ arrangement, two parallel runway systems running north-south and two running east-west, noting that this arrangement has formed part of the planning for the airport for decades.

“Having that hashtag configuration entrenched in planning since 1970 has been a real benefit to ensure that the environment around the airport has been safeguarded to allow for the future growth in air travel,” Mr Gandy said.

Mr Gandy said some of the key drivers of the Capital Plan and development planning process include:

♦ Necessity: Planning processes reflect known capacity constraints which are used to determine future needs
♦ Deliverability: The level of investment Melbourne Airport is capable of delivering, and funding while ensuring the minimum impact on the 24×7 operations
♦ Commerciality: What is affordable for both Melbourne Airport and airlines, and optimises overall enterprise returns
♦ Traveller experience: Delivering those projects that go beyond the bricks and mortar and seek to improve the overall passenger experience and brand of an airport to be proud of

“Commerciality plays a big part of our discussions with our airline customers to make sure that we are building the right facilities at the right time, and to make sure we’re doing that in a commercially efficient way. But we’re also focused on making sure that the product that we’re building ticks the boxes for traveller experience,” Mr Gandy said.

Mr Gandy said annual passenger forecasts are also a key component in making sure that they’re building the right infrastructure at the right time. Due to COVID-19 disruptions, there are a few possible scenarios with high and low cases depending on certain assumptions around where and when they think growth is going to be coming back, which plays a critical role in how the airport is shaped.

Energy and net zero target

Mr Gandy said that none of this future development can happen without also thinking about the utilities within the airport. “Utilities infrastructure is critical to most large-scale infrastructure businesses, not only to keep the heartbeat of the airport running, but also making sure we tread softly from an environmental perspective,” Mr Gandy said.

“I was delighted when we endorsed our carbon net zero approach which will see our scope one and scope two emissions reduce to zero by 2025.

“We have a very well thought through plan that builds on the investments we’ve already made in the Melbourne Airport solar farm, which is a 12 megawatt system at the north end of our longest runway. We’re looking at expanding that facility further, reducing our energy use and also securing green energy supplies for the balance of our operations.”

Legacy shaping project – third runway

One of the biggest future projects for Melbourne Airport is the development of a third runway. “Pre-COVID-19, we were already reaching capacity during our peak periods and we were seeing continuing delays in on-time-performance impacts from reaching the capacity of the existing cross runway system,” Mr Gandy said.

“Our proposed third runway is a new three-kilometre north-south runway positioned 1.3km to the west of the existing one, to enable simultaneous operations. The new runway will be connected to the airfield infrastructure through a number of parallel taxiways to ensure that we can maximise the efficient movement of aircraft to and from the runway systems.”

Construction of the third runway is expected to take four to five years. Approximately six million cubic metres of general or high-quality fill will be required (the equivalent volume of four Melbourne Cricket Grounds), with between 70 per cent and 90 per cent to be sourced on site.

The build will include 750,000m² of pavement (an area the size of 3,000 tennis courts) and 3,500 energy efficient LED lights. The north-south orientation for Melbourne’s new runway has been chosen to maximise its availability based on prevailing wind conditions.

The $1.9 billion project will help cater for the long-term growth of Melbourne Airport’s passenger and freight operations and support thousands of new jobs, including approximately 650 people to be involved in the construction activities.

For more information on the M3R, please visit www.melbourneairport.com.au/runway.

Register for free to watch Simon Gandy’s presentation at the Critical Infrastructure Summit on demand by visiting www.critical-infrastructure.com.au.

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