With 20 years of experience in airport management under his belt, Gert-Jan de Graff’s career has taken him all over the globe. Starting out in 1995 with Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, he eventually came to hold senior executive roles with Brisbane Airport Corporation (BAC), the operator of Brisbane Airport, from 2007 to 2012.
After six years overseas, including a stint as the President and CEO of JFKIAT LLC, the private operator of Terminal 4 at John F Kennedy International Airport, he returned to Brisbane in 2018 when he was appointed the CEO of BAC.
“When I came back, Brisbane had changed,” he says. “Of course, the cityscape was different – there were more high rises, and exciting developments coming like Queen’s Wharf. But the thing that changed the most, I think, was the people. There’s a lot more confidence in the city than there was before. It’s become a place where people are very positive and excited about the future.”
Gert-Jan is one of those positive people, despite the obvious challenges of the last two years for BAC. Speaking at the latest On The Couch event at the Brisbane Business Hub, he explained why he thinks there are clear skies ahead.
The runway to recovery
At the outset of 2020, BAC was flying high. They had recently announced a new daily service from Tokyo to Brisbane, as well as new routes to San Francisco and Chicago, and were preparing for the opening of their new runway, one of the largest aviation construction projects undertaken in Australia.
We all know what happened next. The coronavirus pandemic hit the aviation industry hard, and while BAC was able to keep the airport open throughout the pandemic, the fallout from COVID-19 saw passenger numbers fall by more than 90 per cent.
Gert-Jan doesn’t sugarcoat how difficult the last two years have been, but with Australia’s borders reopening to the world, he believes there is plenty of reason for optimism.
“The pandemic has been really tough for BAC and the entire aviation industry, but we are very positive about the future,” he says. “It will take us about 12 months, I think, for domestic travel to get back to where we were before COVID. For international travel, it will take a little bit longer – it may be three to four years before we’re back to where we were before the pandemic.
“Before COVID, we had 29 international carriers at Brisbane Airport. Today, there are only 12. We used to fly to 34 international destinations, and now we only fly to 11. So there is a way to go, but we’re very well positioned to make that happen and get back in the saddle sooner rather than later.”
Gert-Jan says the recovery will initially be led by leisure travel, with a rise in business travel to follow.
“People want to be able to travel again,” he says. “They want to go places, they want to have fun experiences, they want to see their families. Business travel will be a little bit slower to pick back up. I think that’s partly because a lot of people have gotten used to working from home and meeting online, and because some of the travel budget has been cut at companies that have been doing it tough.
“But I do think business travel will come back. People want to see their colleagues, they want to see their customers, and they want to do new deals. And that’s much easier to do face-to-face than it is through Teams or Zoom.”
As flights from the airport become more frequent, Gert-Jan acknowledges that community engagement on the impacts and mitigation of aircraft noise will be essential.
“We are committed to working closely with our partners to provide better circumstances for people living under a flight path,” he says. “We’re exploring opportunities to reduce the impact on the neighbourhoods that are affected. Being a good neighbour is essential for Brisbane Airport – that’s what provides us with the social licence to operate and to grow.”
Ultimately, Gert-Jan believes a Brisbane Airport resurgence will be a boon for Brisbane residents and businesses.
“Airports are enablers of economic, social and cultural life,” he says. “I think the fact the airport was impacted so negatively by the pandemic has had ripple effects that haven’t been fully understood. People lost jobs at the airport, but there are also a lot of companies that provide services to the airport, and are dependent on activity at the airport. Then there’s the impact on hotels and the tourism industry, on sport, on theatre… that all suffers when travel is restricted.
“I think it’s very important for Brisbane businesses that the airport gets back to normal again. We will see the 24 million passengers that we had before COVID, or even more than that, back here sooner rather than later. That will fuel the economy of Brisbane, and it will help us fill our stadiums and theatres… that’s what an airport that is firing on all cylinders is going to deliver for the city.”
Blue skies ahead
Looking towards the future, Gert-Jan believes the 2032 Olympics will have a transformative effect for Brisbane – and, perhaps, for Brisbane Airport.
“The Olympics and the Paralympics in 2032 are incredibly important for Brisbane,” he says. “It provides us with a 10-year runway to communicate our brand, to give people the opportunity to experience Brisbane, and to showcase Brisbane to the rest of the world.
“The Olympics are also an enabler for the development of infrastructure, not just to facilitate the Olympics themselves, but also for a period of time after the Olympics. I think the focus will predominantly be on transport infrastructure, and I hope – maybe a little selfishly – that this will also help us improve transport to and from the airport, and increase the public transport services that are on offer.”
Following the official opening of the new runway in June 2020, Gert-Jan says there are still plenty of developments to watch out for in the airport’s future.
“The future of Brisbane Airport is bright,” he says. “We are developing a new, world-class terminal that will be located right in the middle between the two runways. One of the other developments we’re working on is the Auto Mall, which will essentially be a track where people can test drive cars and motorcycles, and then buy or lease them from dealerships there. That’s very exciting, because it will be the first facility of its kind.
“The future will bring a Brisbane Airport that’s more than just runways and terminals. It will be an Airport City people want to visit – a place where there’s entertainment, there’s retail, and there are jobs for people who want to work there.”
“I think the Brisbane Business Hub is an incredibly positive development,” he says. “It provides people with a place to work, to collaborate, to learn how to make their businesses successful, and to tap into the knowledge and expertise of mentors who want to support new and growing businesses.
“I think it’s a great initiative, and Brisbane Airport Corporation is committed to playing our part in its future.”
Centrally located on the Queen Street Mall, the Brisbane Business Hub is the place where Brisbane’s business community comes together. Register your spot to attend events and workshops coming up at the Brisbane Business Hub here.