new auckland

Auckland Airport combs the passenger queues

As job titles go, 'Queue Comber' isn’t a well-known one, but 87 of them will be employed at Auckland Airport during the peak summer season.

They will be part of the Airport’s “improvement sprint” to reduce queue times at both the domestic and international terminals.

After being criticised for misjudging passenger growth and “under-investing" in infrastructure, the airport says it will “fine-tune” the way it handles the crowds departing and arriving at its terminals.

Anna Cassels-Brown, general manager of operations, says the “queue combers” have a major role in keeping people moving through check in and security.

“Airports are all about flow,” she says.

The airport has been meeting with Aviation Security, Customs and MPI to see what can be done about improving queue times.

Cassels-Brown says the recent criticism has brought “a healthy degree of edge” to the discussions.

Strictly speaking, the queues in the domestic terminal are the responsibility of Aviation Security, but the airport is stepping in to manage the problem.

Auckland, and other airports, got a stinging rebuke from Air New Zealand CEO, Christopher Luxon, a few weeks ago, for failing to cope with a surge in demand for air travel.

The current domestic terminal (opened in 1966) and the international arrivals hall struggle to cope at peak times, resulting in long queues at screening points.

“Airports are very peaky. If we build (infrastructure) to cope with the peak or seasonal peaks you would have tumbleweed blowing through the place for the other 23 hours of the day and I don’t think people would like that.”

She says the queue combers will help by working on “queue facilitation”.

“They will actually engage with customers. We hope that people who are frustrated by the situation will be compensated by outstanding customer service.”

People stuck in a queue but whose planes are close to boarding will be identified and given priority through the security screening process.

Cassels-Brown says she has asked Aviation Security to review what’s called “double-wanding”.

Auckland Airport's general manager of operations Anna Cassels-Brown. Photo: Supplied 

When a departing passenger walks through the metal detector and sets off the alarm they get a hand-held device (wand) run over them.

Cassels-Brown wants these people moved to a separate area, so they don’t hold up other passengers from going through the machines.

In the international screening area, the airport says it will begin a “facial recognition” trial in partnership with Air New Zealand as part of a longer-term plan to speed up the processing of passengers.

Cassels-Brown suggested the airport, along with the rest of the country, had been caught out by the surge in tourism. More than 20 million passengers a year are now moving through the two Auckland terminals.

“We are a microcosm of a New Zealand problem. New Zealand is suddenly a thing. People are coming here from markets that haven’t been able to come here before.”

But given that the airport company controls the number of new airline services flying into Auckland, if not the actual number of passengers on the planes, why has it got the forecasts so wrong?

“Forecasts are always going to be wrong,” says Cassels-Brown, before confirming the company had recently taken steps to make its modelling (of air travel demand) more robust.

Cassels-Brown told Newsroom that there would be a “rejuvenation” of the domestic terminal beginning immediately.

A thousand square metres of space will be freed up by getting rid of the Relay book shop. More toilets will be installed and the lighting and air-conditioning, upgraded.

Air New Zealand will soon start building a new regional lounge over the top of the valet parking area at the eastern end of the terminal.

The 265-seat Koru lounge for people flying to the provinces will be about 10 times bigger than the existing lounge, which will go to make way for more seating in the general waiting area.

Cassels-Brown says the cost of the “rejuvenation” will be $34 million.

“A fair amount for a building that is going to be knocked down.”

The airport company started planning for a new domestic or jet terminal in 2016 but it still hasn’t finalised the design.

Cassels-Brown expects the plan will locked down shortly, but defended the time it was taking saying that building new airport terminals was, “the mother of all challenges.”

“It isn’t just a box with a couple of floors like a shopping mall.

“It’s not as simple as the bits the customer can see. There is all the stuff that goes under the ground like water, power, telecommunications and gas lines.

“There is baggage handling and safety requirements…. And now we have a government that wants rail to the front door of the terminal.”

Cassels-Brown moves to a large aerial photograph on her office wall to explain how complex and costly building infrastructure at the airport is.

“The core (of airport operations) is squeezed between central roads and the harbour. We can’t just expand the terminals.

“The new domestic terminal will cost $700 to $800 million. It could cost $65 million just to relocate the main power centre for the airport. “

Cassel-Brown says she and the airport’s other key executives feel immense pressure to get the planning right as the decisions need to allow flexibility for the future.

“The former mayor of Manukau city, Sir Barry Curtis showed far sighted vision when the airport was established, we need to make sure we do too.”

Auckland Airport is sticking with its claim that new domestic jet terminal will be open for business 2022 but with a single shovel still to be lifted that looks decidedly optimistic. The queue combers will have plenty of job security for a while yet.

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