The highs and lows of Melbourne Airport’s operations during the COVID-19 pandemic

Not since September 11, 2001, has Melbourne Airport faced such capricious circumstances in which to operate. Lyell Strambi explains how the business is navigating the storm.

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Welcome to another edition of Fast Five - our fortnightly series where we ask Victoria’s most influential and exceptional business leaders five questions to get a glimpse behind-the-scenes of Australia’s most exciting and challenging operations.  

Airports around the world have been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic and are required to adapt faster than any other business in the world. While airports across the United States, Europe and Asia  resume operations, Melbourne Airport remains frustratingly grounded. But that doesn’t mean the business has come to a halt.  

Being twice the size of England’s Heathrow Airport and three-times the size of Sydney Airport, Melbourne Airport CEO Lyell Strambi has led the business through a truly unique period in history. 

#1: How has COVID-19 impacted Melbourne Airport’s operations? 

During Victoria’s second wave, passenger numbers fell by 99 per cent, so you can imagine just how bleak the terminals were. Some days, we were welcoming only 1000 essential travellers instead of what would traditionally be around 100,000 people.  

Adapting to the conditions, we quickly reconfigured parts of the airport to save costs. That involved closing piers and gate lounge areas, turning off lighting and adjusting heating and cooling systems.  

Sadly, the majority of our retailers closed, and the loss of travellers was felt right across the precinct, from our airline customers through to our accommodation and transport providers.  

To support passengers through the pandemic we installed thousands of sanitisation stations, introduced contactless entry and exit payment systems in our car parks, increased cleaning and sectioned off seating to keep people adequately distanced.   

We’ve become agile and that means being ready to ramp up or dial down services according to demand. 

As much as we’d like to put 2020 behind us, COVID-19 outbreaks and border closures continue to severely restrict travel.  

#2: What is Melbourne Airport doing to help rebuild the travel sector once borders reopen? 

The stop-start nature of the pandemic responses, such as lockdowns and border restrictions, are damaging confidence and that affects tourism operators throughout the entire country.   

Vaccination is our only path back to normality. It is what we need in order to keep each other and ourselves safe.  

In an effort to increase the number of inoculations, we recently launched a vaccination competition where six fully vaccinated Victorians can each win $10,000 to spend on air travel. Each month an individual winner will be announced, and the competition will run until the end of the year, giving everyone an extra incentive to get the jab.  

Other parts of the world are starting to create international travel corridors and if we want to be involved, the pace of the vaccine rollout needs to speed up significantly.  

Obviously, we are working closely with our airline partners to help them maintain service and make sure our operations are ready to rebound as soon as the conditions improve. 

#3: Despite the tough conditions Melbourne Airport has had to endure, what has been an achievement for the business? 

I’m proud of the way staff responded and continue to respond to the pressures associated with COVID-19. We’re open 24/7, decisions need to be made in real time and they carry a lot of responsibility.  

COVID-19 regularly passes through our premises - carried by arriving passengers and crew. While you can never afford complacency, we are very proud that we have not seen a single transmission occur at the airport, and a lot of that is down to the layers of protection we have in place and the diligence of everyone working there.   

As a business, we have always relied heavily on income generated from aviation, but during the pandemic we switched our strategic focus to property. Rather than it being a supplementary revenue stream, property is now our top financial generator.  

Not many people realise this, but Melbourne Airport is located within a large land bank that has significant parcels of undeveloped areas. It is twice the size of Heathrow and three times the size of Sydney Airport, home to more than 70 brands.  

Last year we were pleased to welcome Seqirus, Amazon, Bapcor, Aqility, BP and Reece to our business park – which is Australia’s largest, and we look forward to growing in this space; targeting corporate, sporting, entertainment and medical businesses. 

#4: What has been Melbourne Airport's biggest lesson from the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Air travel is extremely fragile and completely reliant on government decisions.  

Despite other disasters such as 9/11, MERS and SARS, nothing has ever affected aviation quite like COVID-19. A decision made in another state, or overseas, can completely interrupt our operation and disrupt traveler's plans, and that is of course in addition to restrictions in our own state. 

The current NSW lockdown is a good example of this. Pre-COVID-19, Melbourne-Sydney was the busiest air route in the country, accounting for more than 30 per cent of our domestic business. We cannot fully recover until border closures end.   

So, while we don’t have a lot of control over how the pandemic will play out, I’m very proud of the way we have constantly looked forward as we navigate the pandemic. By making time to think about the many twists and turns the crisis can take, we have created the opportunity to think ahead and make considered responses, rather than knee jerk reactions, as the situation has evolved. 

#5: What does the future look like for Melbourne Airport? 

We all now know that virtual connections, such as video conferencing, have a place but are no substitute for social connections. The loss of ability to connect with a loved one, take a break from the daily grind or connect with the wide world is lamented by many of us. Therefore, I strongly believe that our thirst for travel and desire for connection means that travel will bounce back. We just need to get to a stage where we can do this safely and confidently.   

We’re hopeful that more vaccinations result in greater freedoms, including the removal of border restrictions so people can plan and book trips with confidence.  

This won’t happen overnight, it is likely to have frustrating stops and starts for some time yet, however, we anticipate a gradual reopening of the globe over time.  

Global aviation experts predict air travel will return to 2019 levels by 2024. We’re planning for that recovery, and we’ll continue to put passengers first by upgrading and expanding the terminal assets to suit the needs of guests. 

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