From primitive sheds to state showpiece: How privatisation created a runway success

Politicians of all stripes came together yesterday to celebrate the opening of Brisbane Airport’s second runway. It didn’t used to be that way, writes Robert MacDonald

Jul 13, 2020, updated Jul 13, 2020
Brisbane Airport has told residents of major noise changes (file photo)

Brisbane Airport has told residents of major noise changes (file photo)

Ardent anti-privatiser, Annastacia Palaszczuk, spent Sunday morning celebrating one of Australia’s great privatisation successes – Brisbane Airport Corporation.

The Premier joined Governor Paul de Jersey, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack, Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner and company bosses to cut the ribbon on BAC’s biggest single investment to date – its new $1.1 billion second runway.

That’s close to the $1.38 billion BAC – a consortium that includes Dutch airport operator Schiphol and QIC – paid the Federal Government for the whole airport in 1997.

It was considered a good price at the time.

The new runway will more than double airport capacity from 50 flights an hour to 110 – the same as Singapore’s Changi and Hong Kong airports.

None of the extra capacity is, of course, needed right now. But yesterday’s speeches, under COVID-19 calmed skies, were all about preparing for the future and working together.

“Today, we are making history. We are creating the future. And very soon, we will be connecting the world,” BAC chief executive Gert-Jan de Graaf said.

“We are generating the jobs of tomorrow. We are reuniting people. We are creating new opportunities. We are fuelling the economy.”

Premier Palaszczuk echoed the sentiment.

The new runway, she said, was “securing Queensland’s future” and “setting us up not just for decades but for generations to come”.

It’s a far cry from the way things used to be, when the Federal Government ran the place.

In those days, the airport was, at times, less a piece of essential infrastructure and more a political football.

Brisbane’s airport, pre-private ownership developed, in fits and starts,  from a facility built on the bones of a World War II airfield at Eagle Farm to its current site built partly on the bones of Cribb Island – one time home of the Bee Gees.

And every step of the way, politicians did their best to score points.

“I suppose that I use the Brisbane domestic airport as much as anybody else in Queensland. it is in a shocking state,” Labor Member for Cairns, Ray Jones told State Parliament in 1978.

“Brisbane’s so-called international airport is a collection of barns, airstrips, bars and restaurants that would besmirch the image of any capital city.”

A year later, then-Opposition leader Tom Burns used Parliament “to raise today the question of the gigantic hoax that is being perpetrated on the people of Brisbane in the name of a new international airport at Eagle Farm.”

“When I recall the arguments and promises that has been put before the people of Queensland the past 10 or 15 years about the need for a new airport I believe the Federal Government has set out rather deliberately to tart up the airport in order to overcome some the short-term problems, and then walk away and leave Queensland with a second-rate international airport.”

Nothing much had changed by August 1982, just before the Commonwealth Games, when Independent MP Lindsay Hartwig stood up to tell the House:

“The conditions at the Brisbane Airport are the most primitive of any I have seen in the world.

“If it is raining when a person leaves the aircraft, he has a damned good chance of being soaked before he reaches the tunnel.

“Some of the Games visitors, who will be dressed up to the knocker, will be saturated before they reach the terminal.”

Five years later, the Commonwealth was still copping it.

“It is clear that Sydney and Melbourne are playing a role to ensure that Brisbane Airport is not upgraded. The international terminal has no airport bridges,” Denver Beanland, Liberal member told Parliament in 1987.

“During peak periods, particularly on Thursday and Saturday, people are herded in and out of the airport like cattle.

“One international tourist commented to me that it reminded him of Managua in Central America.”

There was none of that talk yesterday. Everyone was singing from the same hymn sheet.

And these days, Brisbane Airport wins awards.

The latest Skytrax World Airport Awards rank Brisbane as the third Best Airport in the world servicing between 20 and 30 million passengers.

Who knows what it would have scored if the Commonwealth had kept running it?

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