How does an airport that defines itself on its gentle, small-town charm cope with the most significant disruption in a century? By going all out to tackle it head-on, of course.
Originally published in Australian Aviation, 2020.
Clockwise from left: Justin Giddings is one of Australia's longest serving Airport CEOS; new check-in kiosks allow a passport to be read without inserting them into the machine; a new security scanner means customers don't have to remove their laptops.
Avalon Airport prides itself on simplicity.
As Justin Giddings, the business’ boundlessly cheery chief executive explains, the whole ethos is about being able to breeze through without the hassle you’ll endure from dodging thousands of passengers at its larger rival. And so it’s the simple things they put the most effort into. The security guards are trained to double up as customer service reps, there’s no bussing between buildings, and the terminals are on a single-level, making them mobility friendly. “You can’t possibly miss your flight,” he promises. “We’re after that home-grown sort of feel. We don’t want it to be a metropolis of massive shops.”
In fact, by accident or design, even the onward journey is a doodle. As you exit the airport and drive to the end of the one-way Beach Road, you’ll see a green sign presenting you only two options: turn right to head into the big city of Melbourne or left to explore the quieter delights of The Bellarine Peninsula or the Great Ocean Road.
“Our slogan’s flying made easy,” he says.
Yet as of writing, all flights have been grounded for months. The airport is covered by the state’s infamous second – or is that third? – lockdown and many of the staff are working from home. “I must say this is probably the toughest period by far we've ever experienced.” How on earth, I ask, did the staff react when the uneasy whirlwind of coronavirus hit in late March? “Nobody really knew what was going on or long it would last,” he admits. “A lot of people didn’t believe it.”
Giddings, though, had a better steer than most. He’d travelled to Asia three times in early 2020, and watched first-hand how countries were digging in for the long-haul. “I just knew it was coming,” he says. On his return to Australia, he quickly asked staff to travel-in separately and set up a second office to mitigate the impact of a potential outbreak. “It meant if one person got infected, we could continue operating.”
It set the tone for how ‘Melbourne’s second airport’ attacked the pandemic head-on, treating lockdown as an opportunity. Within weeks, the business arranged for delivery of space-age touchless check-ins, heat-sensing cameras and a newfangled 3D security scanner to stop passengers bundling together. For aviation watchers, this apparent paradox wouldn’t have been a surprise. Avalon might technically be designated a ‘restricted use’ international airport – operating a handful of flights to Bali, Vietnam and Kuala Lumpur – but it’s similarly been long proud of its precocious, upstart status.
Yet as the early days of COVID-19 passed, nipping at Tullermarine’s heels had to be balanced with the more sombre aim of keeping people in jobs. Giddings first idea was to redeploy staff to take advantage of the lack of passengers passing through. “I’ll give you one example,” he says. “We ran through a series of roles that were available and one involved painting the terminals. A girl who works in the cafe put her hand up and told us she’d done a two-year apprenticeship as a painter. She led a team, and they did a magnificent job.” Others took over cleaning duties when they suspended their cleaning contract and groups were also relocated to take on tasks needed by their tenants.
The change in circumstance was unprecedented. All domestic and international flights were suspended, with the airport becoming a makeshift boneyard for Qantas and Jetstar planes. Like much of Victoria, the second shutdown hit them hard, too. Jetstar flights, for instance, were due to resume to Sydney and the Gold Coast in mid-July and then August, but both were false starts. And while the airport initially lucked out and found itself just outside of Melbourne’s ‘second’ lockdown, it soon slipped inside its ‘third’ after it was extended to cover most of the state, despite low case numbers in the area. For a few strange weeks in late July, they even had the dilemma of having some staff trapped in a lockdown, and others free outside. “It was definitely a setback and not something you’d wish on anybody.”
Giddings, though, remains philosophical. “There's probably been no period almost in history where everybody has had to change the way they've lived so quickly,” he says. Often his biggest job, he explains, was trying to keep employees updated as much of the industry ground to a halt. “Every time they heard something in the media, I would go down and brief them and reassure them what our plan was,” he says. “The loyalty they've shown to us in the good times means we’re trying to look after them in these leaner times.”
What made Avalon headlines, though, was the series of innovations Giddings set in motion during the freeze, to ready it for a post-pandemic world. Soon, check-in kiosks will be ‘touchless’ with the on-screen cursor controlled by head movements. A flash new security system will allow customers to leave their laptops in their bag – preventing people bundling together – and there are even preparations for a bag drop so smart it’ll recognise you as you walk up to it. “It'll automatically say ‘Welcome’ and when you put your bag down, and it’ll just take it,” Giddings enthuses. It’ll be ready in September and customers will only have to download an app beforehand. There were some low-fi improvements, too, with Giddings using the time to smash down some ancient columns to make the terminal appear more airy and open.
“We wanted to make the most of the time and the situation,” he explains. “With passengers, you need to remain operational, but without them, it’s a great opportunity. The situation is very bad, but we wanted to be ready and better in a way that gives confidence to passengers.”
It never used to be like this. Avalon was an unassuming council facility when it opened in 1953, mostly designated to cater for the production of military aircraft. It wasn’t until its purchase by self-made transport billionaire Lindsay Fox in 1997 that it shifted gears into an aggressive expansion from regional airstrip to major player. Its first big moment arrived in 2004 when Jetstar turned it into one of its bases as part of a rumoured $11 million deal that brought with it five return flights a day to Sydney. It’s defining moment, however, came recently when an international terminal was added in 2018, leading to Citilink flights to Bali, VietJet Air flights to Vietnam and AirAsia X flights to Kuala Lumpur – a service shifted from Tullamarine.
And that was just the start of numerous attempts to get one over on Melbourne’s international big brother. Case in point: earlier this year – pre-COVID-19 naturally – Avalon reduced its parking fees by 25 per cent after reports emerged its rival had pushed them up. “We can’t believe Tullamarine have significantly increased their parking fees,” said executive chairman, David Fox, in an indignant press release. “It’s another blow for Victorians who are going through so much, especially with the recent bushfires.” It was, it continued, “un-Australian in our opinion.” Then, as the coronavirus crisis unfolded, Giddings himself seized the initiative and publicly pitched for Avalon to become the state’s sole hub for ‘bubble’ flights to New Zealand. Even more dramatically, owner Linsay Fox reportedly joined forces with the Victorian government to try to turn the airport into one of the new homes of Virgin Australia. “You can get into Melbourne quicker here than you can through Tullamarine,” says Giddings of the comparison. “And the cost of a flight to Sydney is always lower.”
But delve deeper into Giddings background, too, and Avalon’s underdog mentality is a perfect fit. He grew up nearby watching the planes and hearing the F18s do their engine runs at night. Despite missing out on university, his passion for aviation meant he snagged his first job as a TA at the airport before working his way through the ranks. He soon progressed to become an aircraft engineer – “I wasn’t a very good one” he jokes – before heading back to school to study a management diploma, then a bachelor of commerce and MBA. Newly qualified, he shifted over to Sydney Airport, starting as a supervisor and then steadily rising to become commercial and operations manager, before returning to Avalon as chief executive in 2008. And so doing became likely Australia's only major airport boss to rise from the most junior to senior position. “It’s certainly a very special place,” he says.
Today, Giddings is tasked with not only trying to keep things afloat right now but priming the airport for a quick takeoff when this crisis finally eases. “There’s a lot of aircraft parked, and that’s keeping the operations team busy,” he says. But moving forward, they’ll be switching roles to ensure social distancing can be adhered to and that passengers can pass through more swiftly. “We’re trying to give staff the tools and confidence to continue working at Avalon.”
But will there be a future like what came before? With airfares surely set to rise and people more confident to sign deals over webcam, hasn’t the pandemic irrevocably downsized the industry? “I still think that people are very social and, yes, I think Zoom is a product they’ll continue to use, but there’s no doubt the world will recover,” he insists. A face-to-face meeting with a colleague or a customer or a client, he adds, builds trust in a way nothing else can. And besides, he points out, Zoom is probably more effective after the human connection has already been built up in-person. “I remember when computers came in people said we’re going to have a paperless world, but now we’ve got more than ever because it’s just so easy to print things off! A decline in aviation in Australia is not where I think it will end up. The owners of the airport are backing it to come out bigger and better when everything returns to normal. Whenever that is.”
For a man who has spent a lifetime in the boom-and-bust world of aviation, I ask why he puts himself through it? Especially right now, during these troubled times. “Oh, there’s some pressure times such as when you’ve got to turn the aircraft around really quickly or when a flight has been delayed, which causes everybody to step and make sure customers are well informed.” But what he secretly loves is the people watching. “You can see passengers saying goodbye to their loved ones. People are happy. They’re excited to go somewhere. That’s what the benefit is. And that’s why people love it – it’s exciting.”
I also suspect it's something to do with his struggle to make it. While he started at the airport aged 18, he only flew on an aeroplane for the first time two years later, aged 20, because in those days it just wasn’t as accessible. “The thought of just being satisfied with having a Zoom meeting for Christmas or not coming down to watch the Melbourne Cup… I don’t think that’ll be the case,” he concludes.
“We’re all sociable people, we’re all missing it, and we can’t wait to get back.”