It’s much more than love, actually

Brisbane Airport Corporation

Image: Julieanne Alroe, CEO and Managing Director of Brisbane Airport Corporation

10 March 2015


Julieanne Alroe, CEO and Managing Director of Brisbane Airport Corporation, began her career in the aviation industry long before the film Love Actually ever made it to the big screen, yet the final scene of that film perfectly illustrates one of the reasons she is delighted with the career path she’s taken.

In the closing sequence of the romantic comedy, the screen fills with an ever-multiplying series of snapshots of people waving, hugging, kissing – connecting in all sorts of ways – as they meet in the arrivals area at an airport.

Real-life reunions and greetings like these happen every day at Brisbane Airport and are always wonderful to see, said Ms Alroe, but understanding what was being done behind the scenes to make these connections happen made them all the more exciting for her.

“You realise you’re working not only in a very interesting industry, but also a very important one,” Ms Alroe said. “There’s a very genuine public service about what we do and it appeals to me to be doing something that’s important.”

Just how important wasn’t clear to the UQ economics graduate when she landed a job at Sydney Airport with the grand title of Assistant Airport Director. Her duty statement said simply “assist the airport director” and it couldn’t have been a better training ground for her current position.

“It was a really grass roots operational job, all about safety and security and all the technical elements of how an airport operates,” Ms Alroe said. “I love to fix things and make things work better, so it really appealed to my nature. Then I realised I could be good at it, and when you think you can do something really well, that helps build passion.”

She worked her way through operations, then into more strategic and planning areas of Sydney Airport, including asset management. Five years ago she returned to her home town to take the reins at Brisbane Airport and guide it through the most dynamic growth phase in its history.

For Ms Alroe it’s a dream come true.

“It’s wonderful to look back and think how lucky I was to be given all those opportunities, to rise through the ranks and be able to stay in the industry,” she said.

“When I went to Sydney Airport, I was ‘it’ as far as females, but I think because I was interested and because I really loved what I was doing, the men I was working with were prepared to train me and to give me the opportunity, and to push me. I’ve seen the industry change enormously from where I was then to what I see now. We’ve come a long way.”

The industry has changed in other ways too. As privatisation of other industry sectors continues to be a political hot potato at every election, Ms Alroe has seen airports work through the transition from government to private ownership.

“I remember back in the days at Sydney Airport we would wait for the budget to be announced to see if we would get maintenance money, much less whether we’d have money to build new facilities,” she said.

“Then, facility development was spread around the country. One year Brisbane would get the money, the next year Sydney and so on. You’re all in a queue and in the meantime you’re all making do.

“The Federal Airports Corporation was an enormous step forward – I remember we got our first computer then in 1988. Suddenly we had our own board, we had our own borrowing program, we were independent of the Budget.”

Ms Alroe said that was the first time the really big developments started to kick along.

“Then with privatisation it has continued exponentially in the sense that we make money so we can borrow money, so we can do more.

“I am a biased witness in this particular case (Brisbane Airport is privately owned by shareholders) but now we can determine our own fate providing we can agree with our customers which, in our case, I can proudly say that’s what we’ve been able to do. So now we can get on with our next phase of development.

“Before, you’d always be competing for infrastructure money. Now Brisbane is building a second runway, Melbourne is planning another runway, and Sydney is planning a second airport all pretty well in the same decade.

“Previously, it’s not something you would have been able to contemplate in the same decade because there wouldn’t have been enough money to go around. There would have been other priorities.”

On Ms Alroe’s watch, Brisbane Airport has completed a $300 million upgrade at the domestic terminal, a $45 million redevelopment of the international terminal is on track to be completed by the middle of this year, and work is well under way on the $1.3 billion new parallel runway due for completion by 2020. In that time, passenger numbers are expected to increase from more than 22 million this year to about 30 million.

More than ever, Brisbane Airport is playing a critical role in the city’s economic future beyond tourism. The growing airport precinct is now home to more than 21,000 people who work at one of the 420 businesses based there, and that number is estimated to more than double to 50,000 in 20 years. Those are new jobs around the airport, not including tourists or people who work at the airport itself.

“Our momentum is growing,” Ms Alroe said. “New opportunities in industries such as agriculture and energy, as well as tourism, give us more diversity.

“We’re very much an Asia Pacific city. We’re growing in that area not just from tourism but also in education and business, so those are things giving us competitive advantage.

“Qantas has just announced new direct services to Japan starting in August; Chinese airlines have agreed to do more services here; Jetstar has agreed to do more low-cost services; and we’re working to attract more airlines.”

Ms Alroe said it was important to keep making a case for Brisbane, but she was very optimistic about the short and medium terms and believed the long term would be brilliant.

“We’re working more closely with Tourism and Events Queensland, Trade and Investment Queensland, and with some of our tourism areas,” she said.

“If we get more seats into Brisbane, that will disperse into the local economy. So we are trying to take a stronger leadership role in building those alliances to make sure we’re not wasting energy on competing, but drawing our resources together and making our pitches go further.

“It’s those partnerships that will be the next big differentiator for Brisbane when we’ve got capacity under control.”

If Expo 88 was Brisbane’s coming of age from big country town to capital city in the world’s view, then last year’s G20 has demonstrated its maturity and a new level of sophistication.

“I think the mining boom has helped stimulate a lot of that and I think it’s going to be what kicks us from the current deep end into the next round of growth,” Ms Alroe said.

“The feedback we’re getting from G20 as a whole, including our part in it, is that people were very impressed with our competence, our friendly efficiency, and our ability to run a big event with expertise yet in that relaxed and casual way that is particularly Australian – Brisbane gets that best of all.

“But Brisbane still is not the first place in Australia people outside the country think of, although they are thinking about it more now because of G20. What we’ve got to do now is follow that up with whatever the next thing is.

“Some of the work the city is doing with the Asia Pacific Film Festival, the Asia Pacific Cities Summit in July and the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT8) at QAGOMA in November I think will help create a different identity for the city that will allow us to leverage something unique from our southern cities and I’m really excited about that.”

The strong collegiate spirit already existing within the business community would help the city succeed, Ms Alroe said.

“Almost the day I walked back in (to Brisbane after working in Sydney for 28 years) I found businesses very welcoming and very supportive,” she said. “As I’ve got to know people better, that sense of co-operation and support has really grown and, as they’ve seen us change and reach out more, we’ve been more than welcomed with open arms.

“I love working with Brisbane City Council. I think the mayor’s fantastic. We’ve had good relations with the Bligh government, the Newman government, and we’ll create the same sort of relationships with the new State Government. We’ve found that if we reach out, people meet us more than half way.”

Surely then she must be satisfied with the position that Brisbane Airport has reached under her reign? The answer to that is a very definite “no”.

“I’m very aspirational,” is Ms Alroe’s assured reply. “I think we can do a lot more. We’ve got the fundamentals in place, but we think we’re ready to go after the next level. We’re very ambitious, so watch this space.”

If that should include a pitch for an Olympic Games in this city, Ms Alroe will be a valuable partner.

“I was heavily involved in the Olympic preparations at the airport for Sydney, so I think I can bring something to that table,” she said.