The end of an era for Coffs airport
IT WAS a blow for Dennis Martin when, in the late ‘60s, the aspiring aviator did not make the cut for the air force – his poor eyesight to blame.
But he was adamant he would pursue a future in aviation, so the teen turned his attention elsewhere.
He secured a “low-level job” as a reservations clerk with the now defunct airline Ansett Australia, marking the humble beginnings of a career that would span half a century, and would see him have a significant influence on the Coffs Coast.
Now sitting in his office at what he’s transformed into one of the most successful regional airports in the state, Coffs Harbour Airport, Mr Martin reflects on his career as he prepares to retire from his 11-year-long tenure as airport manager at the end of the week.
As he hangs up his hat Coffs Harbour City Council is preparing the potential long- term lease of the airport to a private operator.
“I’m having mixed feelings, to be quite honest,” he admits. “I’ve been in aviation my whole life so it’s not easy to walk away.
“But you always know it’s coming as you get older … I guess I won’t know how I’m feeling until I land there – I’ll tell you in a month or so.”
While he’s held the position under a contract with the council since 2008, Mr Martin has been involved in local aviation for the past 35 years.
After he had worked his way up the ladder and become the youngest person in the history of Ansett to be employed in a management position at 28, Mr Martin later moved from Broken Hill to Coffs with his family to work as Ansett’s area manager for the North Coast.
When Ansett collapsed, he set up consulting company Coffs Aviation and Travel and provided ground handling services for Virgin Blue Airlines’ first ever regional operation.
Selling the business in 2008, he was semi-retired when he was approached by the council to help develop the airport from a council facility to a stand-alone business.
“I had just returned from overseas when I was tapped on the shoulder by council,” he said.
“It’s not part of the council’s core business to run airports. It’s a specialised field, it’s heavily regulated and in terms of security … airports are very different businesses.”
Creating a leading regional airport
Mr Martin’s achievements are countless.
Revenue has more than doubled, new routes from Melbourne and Brisbane have been introduced, Coffs became the first regional airport to secure the low-cost services of Tigerair, and infrastructure works totalling $20 million have brought major extensions to the apron and terminal building.
The airport now has a solid foundation to accommodate future growth, and no major infrastructure costs will be needed for the next decade.
“It didn’t happen overnight, it has taken more than 10 years for us to achieve those things,” Mr Martin said.
“When I started here I had a vision to take this airport to where it needed to be as a commercial business, and to grow the routes. A lot of difficult decisions had to be made like introducing paid parking.
“But we’ve got this airport in a good place as we speak. We have three major carriers – not many regional airports have jet services let alone airlines like Tigerair, Virgin and Qantas as well.”
Helping Coffs children
Mr Martin’s contributions to the community don’t end at the aviation industry.
He was named Citizen of the Year in 1998, and in 2017 received an Order of Australia medal for his community work.
“I still for the life of me don’t know where that came from. But I felt humbled, because I felt a lot of other Coffs locals were more deserving.
“But you don’t do those things to gain recognition, there’s no way in the world you go out in the community expecting to get something back.”
As part of the Rotary Club of Coffs Harbour, Mr Martin established the Coffs Harbour PCYC in 1997.
He’s also played crucial roles in Camp Quality and CHYFM over the years.
“I’ve always had the philosophy that you should give back to the community. Instead of waiting for things to happen, get in there and make them happen.”
Having just completed updating the Airport Master Plan, Mr Martin is interested to see the future of the airport including the Enterprise Park, a project in which he’s played a major role.
Ground works have so far been completed on the 95-lot business park development.
“It’s the jewel in the crown from an airport point of view.
“If it’s done properly it’s going to be a huge benefit economically for the city. There’s 95 lots to be developed, bringing in new businesses and employment.”
Coffs Harbour Regional Airport today has a runway wider and longer than the Sunshine Coast and Ballina.
“What we’ve just finished is ahead of the game. We’ve got all the infrastructure needed for the next ten years. We’re ready for future growth.”