IN the shadow of Mumbai, Koen Rooijmans utters the word from which politicians shy; profiling, meaning sorting people by their racial background.
“We don’t like to discriminate but we know where the problem is coming from. Profiling (racial profiling) is a dirty word here in Australia, but I would do it,” says the CEO of Brisbane Airport Corporation.
“There’s always ways to plan a terror attack. The only way to avoid it is if you have intelligence. People have guns and they can come to our car parks if they want or go to hotels or stations. You can’t prevent that.
“You say: ‘Let’s be realistic. Where are these guys coming from? What is their background?’”
The man who has lived with the nightmare of a terrorist attack on Brisbane Airport for the past 12 years has long been an advocate of greater intelligence, particularly on incoming passengers.
“Behind the scenes I’m pushing for (greater) intelligence. We deal with the Australian Federal Police,” he says.
In a little over six months, on July 1, 2009, Rooijmans vacates his office in the BAC’s near new headquarters at the airport and retires, having overseen a period of unprecedented growth at the Eagle Farm complex.
Today is the official opening of the $380 million international terminal extensions, a realisation of the self-described “vision” he had when he first saw the airport site.
“If I go back to my early presentations, the reaction of people was that I was a nice dreamer but I called it a vision. I didn’t know the word ‘wanker’ then,” says Rooijmans in his Dutch accent, referring to the sceptical reception that his view of an airport city received.
He concedes that there have been problems with the private company that carries out security checks on departing passengers, but says the situation has improved.
“We do a lot now with them to focus on how you treat people. We try to influence their attitude towards people to be a bit more friendly, but still firm, and show a bit more of their human face.”
Body scanners which can “see” through passengers’ clothing eventually will be introduced in Brisbane, he says.
“There is no person behind the desk seeing the person being scanned. It is all controlled from outside. You don’t really see anything. It will come here and we will do tests first. Melbourne is doing it.”
He shares the pet hate—long immigration and customs queues—of many travellers and says he has worked to improve passenger processing.
“Nothing is so unwelcoming if the processes are very slow and you have to stand in a line everywhere. That is what we have to realise. People should be welcome in our country as much as possible and not have to stand in too many queues.
“I fight to make it as smooth as possible and to convince Customs that we have to man all the booths as much as possible, but they are recognising that now and we have a very positive relationship with them.”
The day Rooijmans became CEO, July 1, 1997, was the day the Asian economic crisis enveloped the aviation industry.
“Our traffic went down and the first year here we had a loss of $52 million. The second year we lost $51 million, so at least I could say there had been an improvement,” he says, smiling.
These days he has reason to smile with BAC making a profit of $92 million in 2008.
As he speaks, I’m distracted by the Airtrain visible through the window of his office as it rolls towards the city.
“Ah yes, the train,” he says, following my gaze. “They are making a profit now, which is good,” a situation helped by the traffic jams that have become a feature of Brisbane Airport.
He nods at the mention of overcrowded airport access roads and the roundabout which has become a joke with air travellers. “This roundabout will disappear in two or three years and then it is over,” he says, his exasperation apparent.
I suggest it’s a monument to lack of government foresight and he nods. “I think so. I’ve said to government behind the scenes that you only need basically one entrance point to an airport, but that should be state-of-the-art but what we have is a roundabout with traffic lights!”
“That doesn’t improve the flow. It just makes it a bit safer but it is a disaster. It’s asking for trouble. You don’t have to be Einstein to know you have to invest in infrastructure. I must say government is doing it now.
“Better late than never,” he says philosophically.
When Rooijmans first visited Australia from Holland it was with a simple brief from the owners of Amsterdam Airport; buy an airport.
“I visited Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane and my focus from day one was on Brisbane. I always saw it as having the potential which has now been proved.
“I thought we could build here an airport city. I saw creating different precincts—aircraft maintenance, supporting industries, an export park focused on the cargo side, training and education and offices, shopping, golf course, hotels, child care, gymnasium, health care,” he says, his 12-year-old enthusiasm showing no signs of having waned.
“That was my dream in the beginning. Look how big it is. It’s three times bigger than the Brisbane CBD. Three times bigger than Sydney Airport,” he says.
The construction of a second runway will be the challenge faced by his as yet unnamed successor but Rooijmans’ eyes widen as he describes the changes it will bring to his adopted city.
“It will be ready in 10 years time and it will double our capacity. We’re talking about 50 million passengers a year. It can even go to 60 million. If you have one runway it stops at 30 million. At the moment it’s doing 18 million a year,” he says.
“When we started we had 4700 jobs here. Now it’s 17,000 and in 20 to 25 years from now will be 45,000 to 50,000.
“It’s been my job to look ahead, not to worry about tomorrow or next year.”
The current economic crisis will impact on the airport and Rooijmans has begun making plans to deal with a downturn in airline traffic and passenger numbers.
“We might have two years of no real growth. We will discuss it with shareholders and banks and look at our investment program and postpone some things. There could be a couple of years when we pay no dividend,” he says.
He’ll be aged 64 when he closes the office door behind him for the last time and says he feels the time is right to leave.
“You think: ‘They need me’ but that is nonsense. I’ll hand it over and the next guy will do perhaps, a better job. But I am very proud of what we have achieved and I look back with a smile on my face.”