Phone photo by Peter Clark of Melbourne Airport's planning brilliance at work

Melbourne is a great place to visit, and it is disappointing to be shown proof of how it is being failed by its main airport at Tullamarine.

This report and the mobile phone photos are from Peter Clark, a straight talking aviation commentator based in Auckland.

After arriving at Melbourne International Airport on 1 March 2011, for an on time touch down, the problems were about to start for this third world, congested international airport. I have to say, I think it is the worst arrival sequence of problems I have seen for a long time in my internationals travels. We firstly had to wait on the taxi way for close to 20 minutes while a broken tug was  (we were told) unable to complete a push back from the limited number of operational gates at this airport. I am told by operators at the airport it is becoming more common for aircraft to be parked at remote gates because of congestion, and infrastructure not keeping pace with growth.

We currently see that when this airport is in international overload, aircraft are being parked in the freight area and the passengers are  being bussed to the terminal about a kilometre away,  I am then told the escalators are frequently broken in that area and more confusion is experienced.

So how much fuel did my Air New Zealand  B747-400 use waiting to get to a gate, when fuel now sits at over US $100 a barrel? Air New Zealand has operated their mid-morning arrivals of NZ123 and the departure of NZ124 for many years to this airport and are a legacy carrier that has supported Melbourne for countless years.

Finally at the gate and you leave the aircraft, you then enter a dirty featureless air bridge, which I am told we were lucky to get, and the walk to the customs and immigration arrivals area through a rather dirty airport.

There were countless numbers of people queuing up in this area and I thought ‘great I can can beat the queues at Smart Gate, as no one was using the NZ/Aussie E passport automatic gates’.  But no, there was a hold up and the arrivals procedures were temporally suspended as there was over 2000 people in the baggage area. Some people asked the customs officers as they had E passports and no bags could they go by, at Smart Gate, answer, No.

After 25 minutes holding back the crowd of passengers who had already been delayed by the tug failure and joined those from other flights the officials allowed the horde to  finally down to the baggage hall, where only four baggage carousels were working out of the five, only five for this growing airport, and these were just small carousels, not like the large ones we see in Auckland. I was told the fifth one had been broken for several days.

The bags were at least waiting for us, but this didn’t help as the line to get to the baggage inspection and exit area  went around the complete baggage system, then went up and down the sheep races, four times and then along to an agricultural goods inspection point, where an official who saw we were NZ arrivals with nothing to declare and stamped us accordingly in the queue so that we could directly exit the terminal.  Had we been deemed to have anything of interest it was another triple sheep run for those passengers to get to the baggage X-ray  check.

I can only say this is brilliant planning for a first world city airport that invites all these new carriers in before they complete their infrastructure planning. The passengers, the airlines, pay a lot to have an airport that performs. It is not acceptable to hear the airport say we are planning a solution. It should have been completed before the extra services arrived. Knowing in advance of the extra slots that would be needed and the larger number of passengers that would be needed to be serviced, why has the planning not been completed?

To top it off after this day of problems I have been told that the airport managers intend directing airlines to hold passengers on board arrived flights when the facilities can’t cope with peak loads.

This is going to be great for an airline like Air NZ that wants to have an ontime departure and turn around for a  B747-400 in 90 minutes. What is this airport doing?

I suppose the blunt answer to Peter Clark’s observations is that the owners of Melbourne Airport are unlikely to let customer service get ahead of ‘sweating the asset’ until it breaks. At least Melbourne has the good fortune to have two airports, and that Avalon surely must have a future as a fresh start international airport alternative as well as a useful base for  Jetstar and Tiger domestic services.

Think about it this way.  If Melbourne Airport gets even ten minutes worse on average for domestic operators in terms of aircraft rotations the increasingly fragile time advantage it has over Avalon for most regular flyers is all but destroyed by more time wasting delays, and throw in a cost advantage to the carriers, and Qantas and Virgin Australia may start seeing merit in building up flights there, in turn adding to reasons why some international carriers might also look to it for relief.

"Sheep racers" at Melbourne Airport, phone photo by Peter Clark