Looking at the arrival and departure boards at any of our international airports it’s clear to see that Asian destinations, and Asian carriers (including some new carriers) tend to dominate. In fact, the corridor northwards to the cities of Asia now accounts for more than half the movement of international passengers into and out of Australia, up from one third in 1990.
With that shift has come a change in the role of each of our airports. When Sydney accounted for over 50% of our Asian passengers 20 years ago it was our dominant gateway (remember when you had to fly to Sydney to make an international connection?). Today the traffic is more dispersed. Melbourne has been a major winner in this dispersal. Last year’s figures show Melbourne Airport’s share of passenger traffic to Asia almost doubled since 2000 to 30%, while Sydney’s share seems to have stabilised at around 35%. Brisbane and Perth handle around 15% each.
The new pattern reflects in part a shift in the airline industry away from the once-dominant 747 to mid–sized long-haul aircraft (such as the Boeing 777 and the Airbus 330). These aircraft are ideally suited to the distances between Australian and Asian cities.
In addition, their smaller size means they suit smaller city markets. Inter-city links (like say Melbourne-Ho Chi Minh City) may not have enough passengers to fill a daily 747 service, but can be served by these newer, smaller aircraft. Melbourne, in particular, has benefited from this new arrangement.
It now has regular links to a wide array of cities in Asia. Analysis carried out elsewhere in the world has shown this is a common outcome, with many second-ranked gateway cities like Melbourne feeling positive effects associated with air services supplied by a new generation of aircraft.
Of course the airlines will not fly to Melbourne without a market to be served. Markets for air overseas travel come from three important areas - business links, tourists, and travellers making family connections. Research shows that business travel from a city is linked to its employment in professional services, and also reflects the city’s international trade links.
Tourism numbers reflect the local attractions and promotions while international migrant communities are linked to what is called “visiting friend and relations” travel. In Australia international students add to the travel, not only when they arrive and maybe depart on completion of a course, but as they make annual return trips home; they may also generate family visits.
In the past decade, Melbourne appears to be growing in many of these areas relative to Sydney. Gains in the number of international migrants were substantial as seen in a 92% increase in the annual flow between 2000 and 2013 in Melbourne compared to just 13% in Sydney. At the same time the growth in the numbers of tourists spending longer in Victoria almost doubled over the period, while trade flows and student numbers remain high and growing.
Importantly, Melbourne’s faster population growth has not only produced more people who might plan to fly but migration means more of these have international connections, as seen by the increased passenger throughput at Tullamarine.
This outcome also reflects Melbourne’s special advantage over Sydney of 24 hour operation. That provides airlines with much more flexibility in scheduling, something that can be an important consideration when departure times at Australian airports need to fit in with arrival slots in crowded airports in Asia. Hence night-time and early morning arrivals and departures are not uncommon. To maintain this advantage, it will be important to continue these curfew free arrangements, currently cemented in place with land use zoning regulations.
The economic and social changes in Melbourne, allied to the shifts in the operations of the airline industry, have allowed it to develop a set of frequent connections to a steadily expanding array of important Asian cities. In fact Asian connections account for almost 60% of its international passenger movement. Surprisingly, connections to Seoul and Tokyo remain under developed. However, Melbourne has high shares of Australia’s traffic to Ho Chi Minh City, New Delhi, Shanghai and Guangzhou, and the nation’s only services to Chengdu and Bandar Seri Begawan.
As Australia’s links to Asia continue to increase, boosted by a trend that has taken China to second rank as a source of inbound passengers to this country in the space of a few years, Melbourne Airport’s Asian focus will prove to be an important asset.