Australia Airports Build: The Other End of the Line

  The focus of post 2 of this series was the pressure currently being placed on the Brisbane Airport in Australia, in part, from a type of mining operation known as FIFO. Obviously, for the FIFO concept to work there need to be airports at the other end of the sector and that is the topic of this post.

As introduced, FIFO (Fly-In-Fly-Out) is a resourcing tool for remote and regional mine sites to staff their operations from larger population bases and locations offering a better lifestyle.

As Australia's resource sector took off in the mid-2000s, companies had to compete on more than wages to attract enough personnel to make their operations viable. By flying in staff from cities, companies had access to a large pool of recruits and workers had the ability to earn attractive incomes while their families maintained a comfortable lifestyle at home.

In order to facilitate this system, mines and other resource company locations needed an airstrip, aerodrome or airport, depending on the size of the operation.

Industry-wide Growth

A comparison of certified aerodrome numbers from 2004 to 2010 showed that the overall numbers of such aerodromes increased by 30%.

Comparison of Certified Aerodrome Numbers 2004-2010 Grouped by Operator Type

A deeper dive into the numbers shows that the relative percentage of aerodromes owned by resource companies grew in excess of the overall increase. Over this period, 19 aerodromes operated by resource companies entered the certified airport business, so to speak, and this presented challenges both in the ramp up and the ongoing operation of these facilities.

The Need to Build

While the economics of mine development are beyond the scope of this article, to a casual observer, the case for having an aerodrome on one's mine site must have been strong. In areas with dense mining activity, it became normal to have upwards of five aerodromes/airports located within a 30 nautical mile radius.

In the image of the Leinster Area, Western Australia, below, the large red aircraft are certified aerodromes (not current) and the smaller aircraft are uncertified landing sites in support of other mines and remote farming stations.

Close Aerodromes

The proximity of the airport to the site or village would have an impact not only on the work periods and fatigue considerations of the company but also the amenity and comfort factors for the worker. At the height of the mining boom, worker attitude to a site's facilities became an important factor for some as they had the pick of work sites and were happy to move sites at a whim.

In addition to the basic number of new certified aerodromes at mine sites, the size of some of these facilities became significant as the boom progressed. While many aerodromes grew from humble beginnings as emergency airstrips and may have only required some paperwork and no physical works to accommodate a Dash-8-200 (the general trigger for certification, i.e. an aircraft with more than 30 seats), other sites required something bigger straight away. Some of these facilities went from nothing to jet in no time at all.

Fortescue Dave Forrest airport in Western Australia is one such airport. The Fortescue Metals Group operation near Nullagine was a significant development in its own right and needed an airport to suit. From a greenfield site, the company constructed a 2300 meter long runway with supporting infrastructure capable of supporting regular A320 aircraft, initially, and F100 aircraft, currently, from Perth.

In addition to dealing with the remoteness of the site and the scarcity of expertise and labour at the time, the project also involved cutting through a hill and diverting a creek to find that balance between cost and efficiency.

Building was just the First Obstacle

Once the airport was built, a whole new set of challenges for the mining company began. Running an airport, especially a certified aerodrome, comes with a bunch of regulatory and safety requirements. As mining companies focussed on doing what they do best, non-core activities such as running the airport either fell to mine workers as secondary duties or became outsourced to the village operator or another sub-contractor on site.

The results tended to vary.

Workers on these airport, invariably, had other jobs on site. Be they cleaners, cooks, safety officers, paramedics, they all needed training and few came with aviation experience. Luckily for the industry, competency-based training had been developed some years prior and tailored courses for mine sites were easily developed and deployed.

But it wasn't as simple as that. With staff turnover high, it was not unheard of for training organisations to be visiting sites on numerous occasions to train up new workers with the previous staff having left for other opportunities. Sometimes, it was a matter of weeks between visits.

This training also focussed on the frontline workers, such as aerodrome reporting officers and ground handlers. Support for aerodrome managers was required as, again, people with little aviation experience had to navigate aviation safety regulations including grappling with the implementation of Safety Management Systems like the rest of the industry. In response, a healthy consultancy industry grew in support.

That consultancy industry has, in some ways, morphed into a dedicated airport operations service industry with a number of companies offering airport labour and full service solutions to mining and resource companies.

What Does the Future Hold?

The heat is off the mining sector generally but there are plenty of FIFO operations still in business. In some other areas, the FIFO concept itself is under pressure. Regardless of the outcome of these political and economic arguments, the benefit of aviation and airport supported operations is now too well known to not be considered in any future development or expansion.

In these leaner times, innovation will become vital as both mining companies and service providers seek to distinguish themselves from their competitors. The skills and knowledge gained during the boom times might become a valuable commodity for those seeking employment or engagement in a tougher market.

The next few years will prove to be interesting in the remote and regional areas of Australia.

Australia airports

 

Do you want to contribute a guest post to New Airport Insider? Contact Dan Parsons, Kris de Bolle, Guillaume Dupont or Jinan Alrawi.