How long does it take to build an airport? Berlin Brandenburg airport has taken 14 years. Sydney has talked about a new airport at Badgerys Creek since 1979, and there’s now a tentative opening date of 2026. Most of us will be dead before Heathrow’s third runway sees its first plane. Airport builds usually take a lot of time. But there’s always an exception to the rule, and Australia’s Wellcamp Airport is just that.
Located 150 kilometers west of Brisbane, just outside the regional city of Toowoomba in Queensland’s southeast corner, Wellcamp Airport took 19 months to build, from turning the first sod to landing the first commercial passenger service. A well-known local family, the Wagners, were behind the airport. They owned the land and now run the first privately funded airport ever built in Australia. Wellcamp is also the first greenfield airport since Melbourne’s Tullamarine airport opened fifty years ago.
Wellcamp is no little hobby airport either. Wellcamp’s Code E rated 2,870-meter runway can and does handle Boeing 747-8 freighters. There is a 36,000m2 high strength apron and sophisticated ground support equipment. The secure cargo facility has the tick of approval from Australia’s Border Force and is a regulated air cargo agent screening for United States and non-United States bound cargo.
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If you built it, will the airlines come?
Construction started at Wellcamp in early 2013. By late 2014, the airport was ready to receive commercial flights. Quick off the bat, Qantas started sending its Q400 Dash 8 planes to Wellcamp in November 2014.
In addition to the runway and cargo handling facilities, the Wagners built an 8,000 m passenger terminal. Aside from a short suspension this year, Qantas has continued to fly into Wellcamp from Sydney. Earlier this year, Qantas has doubled down on the airport. Qantas said they would set up a pilot academy at Wellcamp to train up to 250 pilots each year to build a long-term talent pipeline for the airline. That’s more business and more infrastructure for the airport.
In addition to Qantas, REX includes Wellcamp on its milk runs from Brisbane into western Queensland. REX lays on a seven-stop marathon flight up to Mt Isa, an easier three-stop run out to Thargomindah or the short hop back to Brisbane on the coast. Airnorth also usually flies through Wellcamp. It has direct flights down to Melbourne and northbound flights up to Cairns, Townsville, and Darwin. Schedules have been knocked around this year but slimmed down timetables still operate.
The only significant Australian airline not flying into Wellcamp yet is Virgin Australia.
“Wellcamp Airport has fast become a nationally strategic and important piece of infrastructure, and we are proud that the airport,” said Wagner Corporation Chairman, John Wagner in January.
Local knowledge and money behind Wellcamp Airport
The Wagners have invested a lot of money and faith in the Toowoomba region and Wellcamp over the years.
“Toowoomba is going through unprecedented growth — it’s the investment hot spot in the country,” Mr Wagner told the Nikkei Asian Review in 2018.
“We quickly found out we couldn’t attract people to Toowoomba because there was no connectivity.”
Banks wouldn’t lend the Wagners any money, viewing their airport as an expensive folly. So the family used their own money and ran the build from start to finish. Think of a Grand Designs episode on steroids. Wellcamp is reputed to have cost around US$75 million to build. The Wagners say the airport has made a profit since mid-2015.
By the end of 2019, Wellcamp was Australia’s 41st busiest airport, with 112,000 passenger movements that year. It’s not a bad result for something built in just a couple of years, that people said would be an enormous white elephant.
“We would say we were building an airport that would take a jumbo jet, and they would laugh in our faces,” said Mr Wagner. A few years down the track, the Wagners are having the last laughs.
Freight underpins Wellcamp Airport’s success
The thing is, the Wagners had deep roots in the region. They understood what made the area tick and what it needed. Wellcamp Airport is really about the freight. The airport is located in one of Australia’s richest food bowls, the Darling Downs. There are thousands and thousands of producers in the region, some big, many small. What they wanted was connectivity and access to markets.
The Wagners got their first jumbo in November 2015, twelve months after the first Qantas passenger service. A Cathay Pacific Airways Boeing 747-8F stopped over while en route to Sydney. It picked up 58 tonnes of fresh produce. That included 14 tonnes of high quality chilled local Black Angus grain-fed beef and organic chickens.
Cathay Pacific sends its Boeing 747-8F into Wellcamp
Eleven months later, Cathay Pacific began weekly freighter services into Toowoomba using Boeing 747-8F aircraft operating on a Hong Kong – Sydney – Melbourne – Brisbane West Wellcamp – Hong Kong routing.
“The opportunities this creates for Queensland exporters to benefit from Australia’s free trade agreements and to access the world’s biggest consumer markets are unlimited,” said John Wagner at the time.
“The first booking we received for a Wellcamp export was for a live crocodile,” said Cathay Pacific General Manager for Cargo Sales and Marketing, Mark Sutch. Whether that crocodile was heading to a zoo or the Hermès handbag factory is unknown.
The Cathay Pacific has since doubled its flights to twice weekly. A Singapore Airlines cargo service has also followed its competitor, flying into Wellcamp. Over the past few months, Singapore Airlines has operated a weekly A350-900 freighter into Wellcamp. It’s a trial run underwritten by the Australian Government to prop up producers struggling to access export markets this year. If successful, the flights will continue.
The Toll Group also has multiple weekly services linking Toowoomba’s Wellcamp Airport into its domestic network.
Driven from the ground up by locals
Notwithstanding the challenges faced this year, the amount of aircraft and passenger traffic into Wellcamp is a successful outcome for a greenfields build. Wellcamp provides a template for privately funded airports. But perhaps the secret to its success was that it was built and funded by locals.
It wasn’t funded by private equity out of New York who make their decisions based on spreadsheets and some advice from a McKinsey consultant. Rather, the vision and knowledge driving Wellcamp’s built was entirely local. There’s probably a takeaway in that for future airport builds.