By James Goodwin, Chief Executive, Australian Airports Association

There is no doubt that in the past two years, Australian airports have faced the greatest shock to the aviation industry in the modern era. Amid the upheaval, there has also been an opportunity to reflect, reset and reimagine the airports of the future.

The industry is realistic in its predictions — it is unlikely a full recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic will happen before 2023-24. A ‘two-speed’ aviation recovery is currently underway with domestic and international flights now decoupled. Domestic travel is back too, and in some cases exceeding, pre-pandemic averages, but international travel still lags at around 50 per cent of pre-COVID levels.

Substantial growth in international travel is expected in 2023 as more nations reopen their borders and international carriers return international capacity to Australian airports.

The greatest challenges facing the industry

The economy-wide skills shortage is one of the many challenges the aviation industry continues to face. It has also become apparent that wider community and economic issues are having an impact, such as housing supply and affordability, alongside the pressure on wages from inflation.

The sector has been doing it tough but the skilled people who work in the sector have been doing it tougher. We now need to focus on encouraging new and returning workers back into the industry. Airports will be looking closely at the outcome of the Federal Government’s Jobs and Skills Summit and its plans to address skills and capability shortages in its Employment White Paper.

We have also highlighted to the government the importance of prioritising steps to secure and invest in airport infrastructure. The Australian Airports Association (AAA) has identified the cost of keeping the national airport network open for business at approximately $4 million a day. This includes the fixed costs of providing domestic and international security screening and ensuring airfields are safe for planes to take off and land – all government-mandated requirements.

Many airports took advantage of fewer travellers and aircraft during the pandemic to carry out critical infrastructure upgrades, but other airports, particularly regional and remote airports worked hard to keep their infrastructure in a state of good repair, while still providing essential transport services to their communities. These airports not only carried passengers, but also cargo, essential workers, high value airfreight trade and keeping critical export industries operating.

Long-term solutions for the future of airports

A supportive regulatory environment will create the conditions allowing airports to make long-term infrastructure investment decisions.

This will not only support aviation and tourism but also the infrastructure and civil construction sectors, who also need certainty and a forward  pipeline of projects.

Regional and remote airports are vital parts of Australia’s transport network. The recently ended Regional Airport Program and Remote Airstrip Upgrading Program provided extremely good value for money and helped address the backlogs of infrastructure upgrading and renewal to ensure safe flight operations in regional and remote Australia. The Federal Government should continue this support to maintain connectivity with large regional cities and capital cities.

Looking to the future, airports are now, more than ever, an extension of the economic regions they serve — effectively acting as the front door. In the next few years, travellers will see more food and beverage, retail and in-terminal experiences at our airports reflecting the character and culture of the region.

Integral to being a city or region’s gateway is the focus of airports to have the best customer experience, both in-terminal and on the broader airport precinct. While the pandemic accelerated existing trends of automation and contactless technologies, there is still a role for personal service that airports want to provide their customers.

Finally, airports are also looking to the opportunities presented by new and emerging technologies. There is significant potential for airports to meet their own energy needs with solar power and battery storage, reducing aviation emissions through electrification oflandside and airside infrastructure.

The integration of alternatively powered aircraft using electricity, hydrogen or sustainable aviation fuels presents challenges and opportunities for airports, as does ensuring the safe and effective entry into service of Advanced Air Mobility Systems. While the aviation sector’s recovery is well under way, there’s still plenty of work to do and airports will be aiming high, finding new ways to connect with communities and share its vision of an exciting aviation future.

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