While Melbourne Australia’s airport at Tullamarine might not glow with the aviation heritage of, say, NY–La Guardia or Paris-Le Bourget, it’s still a good index for the world’s ever-expanding demand for aviation connections.
And, as recent stats from YMML show, global aviation is definitely not shrinking. Flights, city pairs, available seats and airline fleets are all growing astronomically.
At the beginning of June 2017 Melbourne Airport reported that just one week’s worth of new service announcements and commencements had raised their total international departures by an incredible 800,000 seats per year.
That’s a lot of choice for Melbourne’s 4.6 million residents1 to share between them.
Direct links and Dreamliners
Most recent was China Southern, which has begun new A330-200 services (the airline has 16 in its fleet) direct to Shenzen, China every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday. That’s 650 extra seats a week right there.
China Southern’s service inauguration came hot on the heels of Japan Airlines announcing new daily direct services between Melbourne and Tokyo; and Sri Lankan announcing its own daily services direct to Colombo; all in the same week.
Plus Air Canada will commence services across the Pacific from December this year.
It’s also interesting that all three of those airlines – as well as a new QANTAS service that will fly from Melbourne, through Perth and then non-stop to London-Heathrow from next year – will be operated with variants of Boeing’s innovative 787 Dreamliner.
That certainly appears to validate Boeing’s rather risky shot of bringing multiple new technologies into the Dreamliner program, and in betting on more flexible direct city pairings over the high volume hub-and-spoke model Airbus backed with the A380.
Time will tell (on a couple of levels)…
Home from home
What stands, however, is the fact that Melbourne Airport is about as far as you can get from everywhere. Tullamarine is almost as distant from London Heathrow (10,504 nm) as it is from New York JFK (10,374 nm); and not much nearer to Beijng, China (5,641 nm) than it is to the US West Coast (KSFO is 7,855 nm).
The city is also famously cosmopolitan, hosting the world’s largest Greek population outside Greece as just one example, so the airport is a vital link between home and “home” for a lot of its residents.
It may just be the perfect port for combining trunk-route A380 services with lighter 787-style direct services. That certainly how things seem to be evolving.
A new ‘jet port’
Up until the 1960s, Melbourne’s air travel was serviced by nearby Essendon Airport, but even in the mid-1950s the growing number of international travellers and the advent of jet airliners made it clear that an entirely new facility would be needed. For one thing, Essendon was already being crowded by its residential neighbours and there was nowhere to put the longer runways that long-haul jets would need.
So in 1958, the Federal government purchased 13,000 acres (5,300 ha) of land at Tullamarine, 23 kilometres form the city centre, for a new ‘jet port’. What a wonderful term!
Part of the land included Gowrie Farm, which had been used as a satellite for Essendon during World War Two, and aircraft being parked there at night in case Essendon was bombed.
The new airport opened for international flights on July 1st, 1970 and then took most domestic services off Essendon from June 26th, 1971. The airport handled 155, 275 international passengers for six airlines in that first year.
These days, the airport sees a good deal more: In 2016 there were 34.6 million passengers and and 234,789 aircraft movements across 25 international and 5 domestic airlines.2
The inexorable rise in air travel saw the airport struggling to keep up with demand; it was operating at almost double it’s designed passenger capacity by the 1980s and expansion or improvement projects have felt almost ongoing ever since.
The next big step is more asphalt, in the form of a third runway. Ultimately this will give the airport two 3000 metre east-west runways, both 60 metres wide, plus its 3,657 m x 60 m north-south strip (actually 16/34), by the year 2024.
Whether that proves enough to handle aviation growth in the 21st Century will have to be seen. Melbourne’s expecting to handle 64 million passengers and 350,000 aircraft movements a year3 by 2033 (twenty years from when the plans were formulated). But I still can’t think of a single airport that managed to accurately predict and build for eventual demand.
If you build it, they will come…
Tell that to the people who want to strangle and/or close airports like KSMO. While you’re at it, mention that YMML is estimated to be worth A$6.8 billion4 (with a ‘b’) to the local economy.
I like airports. I mean, what’s not to like – they’re where aircraft are at. But also, from a more ‘airscape’ perspective, a lot of them have amazing stories to tell. True, some have simply sprung from a single, purposeful infrastructure investment. But many more have a history that’s easily as fascinating as any of the aircraft they serve.
All around the world, there are major airports that have grown out of convenient cow pastures, essential refuelling points, pioneering commercial routes, vital wartime bases, national pride, and even optimistic real estate speculation.
Some of those stories are still highly instructive and I’m looking forward to sharing more of them. Not just the big ones either – feel free to let me know about your local paddock’s history too.
I don’t want to take the focus off the appalling rate of airport closures, but perhaps reflecting on some airport successes might show the small thinkers a much broader horizon.