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Cairns - Connecting the World with the Great Barrier Reef

Marketed as Connecting the World with the Great Barrier Reef, Cairns International Airport has invested heavily since its acquisition by North Queensland Airports in 2009. Following a visit in 2015 I investigated what the future held then for this Australian facility.

Aviation first came to Cairns in 1914 when Barnstormer Captain Arthur Jones brought his plane there for a demonstration flight. Unfortunately for Jones the many spectators witnessed him crash landing the plane instead. Luckily though both he and aviation in Cairns survived.

In 1929 air travel was established when pioneer aviator Tom McDonald began flights to southern centres using a Gypsy Moth from a 90 meter landing strip constructed by himself from ash sourced from the local gasworks. In 1934 the people of Cairns raised money so that an airport could be built where aircraft could operate at all times. It took until 1941 during the war for an international service to take place with a flight from New Guinea which today is still a major destination with flights from three different airlines to both the capital Port Moresby as well as the third largest city Mount Hagen.

The post war years saw many more improvements including a runway extension to 2020 metres with the airport operator looking towards international operations.

In the early seventies the number of movements increased. TAA and Ansett providing services to Australian state capitals.

However it wasn't until 1984 and after a many negotiations with the Commonwealth government of the day prompted by a significant increase in traffic levels that the newly constructed terminal was licensed to operate international flights. It seemed only right that the honour of the first official flight once again came from New Guinea with one of the Air Niugini services that had operated into Cairns for the previous 10 years and has continued to do so ever since, currently utilising Fokker 70’s

Air Niugini fokker 70

In its first year as an official international airport there were 45,000 international passengers and local groups working with government sought to boost this further.

So successful was the push that a new dedicated international terminal building was built. Completed in 1990 this building was designed to service the growing number of international passengers arriving here from Japan, United States, United Kingdom, Europe and New Zealand.

Now known as T1, it still welcomes international services to Cairns today. 1990 was a busy time for construction with the opening of a new Control tower and further increase in the runway length to 3196 metres.

The terminal was extended and refurbished in 1997 with three new aerobridges added. By the early 2000s passenger numbers through T1 peaked at 860,000.

Economic pressures in Japan, followed by the Global financial crisis and the US led War on Terror, put the brakes on international passenger growth for a few years but with North Queensland Airports purchasing Cairns Airport on 14 January 2009 these challenging times were weathered and seeing upward trends once again they continue to operate the facility and invest in its development. A development that has seen the airport grow strong links with the neighbouring Asia-Pacific region and helped Cairns become northern Australia’s aviation gateway.

Present day operations.

Statistics for the year to April 2019 shows that Cairns welcomed more than 50,000 movements carrying over 5 million passengers of which 670,000 were international.

International destinations include Auckland, Bali, Hong Kong, Manila, Osaka, Port Moresby, Shanghai, Singapore and Tokyo travelling on Air New Zealand, Air Niugini, Cathay Pacific, China Eastern, Hong Kong Airlines, Jetstar, Philippine Airlines and more recently Silk Air. On the home front long term operators QANTAS, Air North, Alliance and Skytrans have been joined by relative newcomers Jetstar, Tigerair and Virgin Australia who have increased air travel just like low cost operators all over the globe. Although it remains to be seen what Virgin Australias operations will be like post bankruptcy.

FIFO (Fly in fly out) services are an important component of the overall business mix at Cairns Airport. The key international FIFO centres serviced by Cairns are Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Indonesia. Air Niugini and QantasLink provide Regular Public Transport (RPT) services to PNG. Airfast operate charter services into Indonesian mining centres. In addition Hevilift has a base in Cairns servicing Mining centres in both countries in addition to Australia. There are also connections with many Australian resource centres via Alliance Airlines charters and RPT service by regional operators such as AirNorth, Hinterland, Regional Express Airlines (REX), Skytrans and QantasLink.

The airport is situated approximately 8km north of the Cairns central business district immediately south of the Barron River and east of the Captain Cook Highway. Runway 15/33 is 3156m long with a high strength grooved asphalt pavement with a width of 45m plus 7.5m wide dual shoulders.

There are 2 separate passenger terminals - The 37,585m2 International T1 and the 42,900m2 Domestic T2. On the western side of the airport in the General Aviation Area there are a number of leased and privately owned aviation facilities from such diverse organisations as Hawker Pacific (MRO) and Hinterland Aviation to Australian customs, Queensland Government Rescue and the world famous Royal Flying Doctor Service including offices and hangars, as well as a common user General Aviation terminal.

Recent developments.

North Queensland Airports (NQA) has made significant investment in the development of Cairns Airport since purchasing it in 2009. The airport is heavily reliant on a robust tourism industry having, at the top of its list, the Great Barrier Reef and Tropical Rainforests on its doorstep and the company makes a major contribution to tourism marketing for the destination every year as well as working directly with airlines, government and the travel trade to promote the destination through existing routes and negotiating new ones.

Cairns Airport has runway capacity to double the amount of flights currently serviced and although currently not operated there the airport is able to handle the A380 should any airline wish to do so.

When NQA purchased the airport they inherited a $200M redevelopment project to the Domestic Terminal (T2) which having been started in 2007 resulted in a new layout, completely changing the way the terminal operates.

Completed in 2010 they moved from the system of airline specific areas to spacious common-use check-in and arrivals areas. Now all airlines check-in at the southern end, all arrivals and baggage claim is at the northern end with the terminal floor space increasing by 133% to 42,900m2.

An enlarged Departure Lounge now offers a wider choice of both retail and food and beverage outlets, from what might be termed standard airport fair to quite specialised Australian products which serve amongst others, the 30% of the passengers flying in and out of T2 who are international travellers arriving into and/or are departing Australia from another port. There is also a new outdoor seating area where passengers can enjoy the tropical climate for one last time.

The first floor of the terminal building offers space for airline lounges, with the Qantas Club already in residence. There is also office space for airlines and other aviation related businesses, plus VIP and meeting rooms to meet the needs of business travellers.

New airbridges and airside covered walkways have been constructed. The previous terminal offered only three airbridges. These were replaced and another two added.

It wasn't only the facilities that were upgraded. The vibrancy of Tropical North Queensland has been brought to life through displays featuring works by locally based artists which represent the diverse geographical and cultural mix present in the area.

Outside are stainless steel etched termite mounds created by Cape York artist Thanakupi that are now becoming recognised as an icon of Cairns Airport.

New landscaping features colourful low-growing plants such as hedges, shrubs and feature plants which greets people driving into Cairns Airport from Airport Avenue.

The car parks and roadways have been upgraded, from increased spaces to a range of parking product options to help people save time and money by parking right at the terminal.

Covered walkways are in place at each end of the terminal and the public pick-up area offers cover for passengers as they wait for vehicles to arrive, a real necessity in the baking temperatures of a Queensland summer.

Further development included Apron widening and lighting, VDGS systems, and passenger walkways, Improvements to Taxi and Bus areas, New departures and arrivals baggage systems, Updated security and IT and new public signing throughout

However passenger growth is such that T2 is currently under review for further redevelopment.

The International T1 has capacity to service increased numbers of flights and passengers. During 2015 Cairns Airport secured five new international routes. Jetstar’s direct service to Bali, SilkAir’s Singapore service, Philippine Airlines Manila-Cairns-Auckland flights and both China Eastern (Shanghai) and Hong Kong Airlines have announced 4 month seasonal charter services for the 2016 Chinese New Year period. China is currently a huge growth market for Australia as a whole.

The Airport is working with key airlines to secure year round services from mainland China as well as direct flights from Korea and Taiwan and more Japanese ports to further strengthen its links to the Asia-Pacific region.

Plans for the future.

The airport has decided to move forward with what it calls Enterprise precincts and is now ready to move into the next phase of development by investing, along with partners, to fulfil a 20 Year Vision for Cairns Airport to ensure it continues to evolve as one of the key Australian gateways to Asia Pacific and provides the infrastructure vital for regional development.

Airport management undertook a study which forecast that at completion these precincts are likely to generate annual revenues of $933 million which would contribute an additional 10% to Cairns’ Gross Regional Product. Employment would be boosted with 5,300 full time equivalent jobs onsite with a further 9,000 in the greater Cairns area, an increase of around 10%.

Cairns Airport Commercial Enterprise Precinct

Within the Commercial Enterprise Precinct project, NQA will offer a 24/7 curfew free trading environment incorporating an Asian-Pacific Business Centre for Agribusiness, Mining and Resource, Financial and Professional services. World Class Medical and Tropical Health Facilities including Private Hospital Hotel. Tourism & Leisure Developments including high-end duty/tax free shopping.

Cairns Airport Aviation Enterprise Precinct

Cairns Airport is now working with the current General Aviation community to develop new aeronautical and aerospace business opportunities in such areas as Engineering and maintenance, Commercial flight simulators, Avionics and component services, Aerial surveillance and seismic survey, General Aviation and Fixed Base Operations support and infrastructure, Helicopter precinct (tourism, regional and maintenance facilities), Freight and logistics and Aeronautical catering.

In addition to being an international tourism destination, Cairns Airport is well placed to grow as a major export and trans-shipment point for air cargo travelling between Australia and Asia. The large catchment area for cargo to and from Cairns is well connected by road and rail infrastructure. As the number of wide body jets servicing Cairns grows through the establishment of new direct passenger routes to key markets, NQA feels that there will be new opportunities for beef, dairy, seafood and horticulture exports originating from the regions north of Rockhampton to be sent by air to Asia.

The development projects planned for Cairns Airport is expected to stimulate opportunities to diversify the airport business mix, bring unique new business to the region and significantly build on the more than 30,000 jobs and $2.5 billion of value added revenue the airport currently generates directly and indirectly per year for the regional economy.

Having been named Australian Airports Association Major Airport of the Year in 2013, Cairns Airport is not sitting on its laurels. It is looking to its long term future and who would bet this award is not going to be its last.

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