Interview: Brisbane Charts International Recovery

Brisbane Airport's Ryan Both discusses BNE's international recovery, attracting United Airlines, and Queensland’s A$200 million fund to secure new air service.

Credit: Brisbane Airport

Ryan Both, Brisbane Airport Corporation Executive General Manager Aviation.

How is Brisbane Airport performing since international restrictions were relaxed?

We’re at about 50% of 2019 levels. We've seen Europe and North America recover well, which has been really pleasing, and after a few false starts New Zealand has also recovered. On those markets, it's really just the challenge of getting enough seats. It’s probably a new problem to be supply constrained with a strong demand, but that’s the world we live in. Operational constraints are dictating the pace of recovery. But overall, we’ve seen significant strengthening in the last four weeks and that is really encouraging. 

What is the outlook like for the northern winter 2022/23 season?

Northern winter is traditionally our strong season of launches. We’ve already had United announce plans to launch a route from San Francisco (SFO) and Air Canada is increasing frequencies from Vancouver (YVR) up to five a week. However, we don’t have a significant wave of capacity yet announced for northern winter. I think we’re looking through to northern summer '23 for that operational constraint to be relaxed. We need to see Boeing restart 787 deliveries, which will help to feed the pipeline. Northern summer will therefore probably be a stronger season than it would normally be because we’re probably not going to get all the growth that the industry would like to deliver in northern winter.

Have you managed scale up your activities following the easing of travel restrictions in Australia and beyond?

We were very fortunate to have a very strong level of traffic relative to other airports during the pandemic. Brisbane Airport was actually the busiest airport in Australia for two years in a row by passenger numbers. We have a lot of fly-in, fly-out traffic and we serve more than 20 destinations within the state of Queensland. It’s the only state in Australia where more than 50% of the population live outside the major city. So, to that extent, we had a base load of demand and resources that we kept going and we’ve been very careful in the planning for the build-up of the peaks. I’ve been very pleased with the response of our teams and our suppliers. We haven’t had any significant issues in restarting.

When do you expect passenger numbers to recover to pre-pandemic levels?

It’s hard to predict the path but we were aiming to be at 100% of 2019 levels by 2025. We’re now anticipating that’ll happen sooner—it’s just a question of how much sooner and that is materially impacted by how Asia reopens. A lot will depend on the Chinese government policy, for example. Assuming that we see the supplier seats and aircraft deliveries occurring in a relatively normal way within 12 or 18 months, then we’d expect to be pretty close to 2019 levels going into 2024.

Pre-pandemic you had service to Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Taipei and Hong Kong among others. When do you expect to recover some of this Asia market?

In Brisbane, we didn’t have quite as much of a dependence on mainland Chinese traffic. We’re probably focused on Hong Kong first, and then the major hubs. It’s too early to say whether we’ll see a return of the same type of traffic that we saw before from many secondary points. But really, it’s Taiwan, Korea, Japan and Hong Kong that we need to get going within this calendar year and heading into northern winter

What have been some of your most significant new routes?

We’ve seen two carriers announce services that we didn’t have pre-pandemic—that is Qatar Airways [operating daily from Doha] and United. I think they’re great examples of airlines rebuilding a more diverse network coming out of the pandemic. Carriers are prepared to take a little bit more risk and put the capacity where the demand is, not just forcing people onto hubs or routes they used to fly on. And we’re seeing those behaviors being rewarded. Looking ahead, I think the 777-9 and A321XLR are very exciting aircraft and could open up a range of opportunities for Brisbane. We’re conveniently positioned as the most northerly major airport in Australia, so we’re closer to North America and many points in Asia and South Asia.

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How important is the United route for Brisbane?

Having United is amazing—they’re such a powerful carrier and they have 80 one-stop connections out of San Francisco. We match that with 53 connecting points out of Brisbane. I think it’s a great relationship and it’s very powerful to have to have a major US carrier serving Brisbane. As we know, many, many US consumers don’t see a destination on the map until the main US airline flies there. Brisbane is now on the map for many customers in in North America. That’s very exciting.

The United route was secured through the Attracting Aviation Investment Fund. Can we expect more new routes like this in the near future?

The Attracting Aviation Investment Fund was set up in a partnership between the Queensland Government and the four main international airports in Queensland. And that’s A$100 million from industry and A$100 million dollars from the Queensland Government. It’s the largest fund in Australia and it’s designed to accelerate our progress toward Brisbane 2032 Olympic and Paralympic Games. I think the fund is really a symbol of Queensland’s desire not only to be on the map, but to start to lead in that pathway towards the Olympics. We’re actively working on submissions and discussions, and we hope they will lead to the launch of new routes. There will also be support for our existing carriers who have taken some risks in launching service during COVID times. The new route announcements may hinge on aircraft availability, but we’re hopeful there will be some announcements in northern winter or northern summer 2023.