From the ground Australia is a vast and magnificent land. From the sky, its grandeur and epic scale is astonishing.
Welcome to The Moodie Davitt Report Interim Qantas Airways Bureau. As I begin this Blog I’m some 2,146km out of Sydney en route to Hong Kong, 10,972m above the Walsh River in North Queensland. The view from my window on QF127 is better than any cinema could ever offer. Australia simply stretches. And stretches. And then it stretches some more. It is a wondrous country.
I’m heading back to London, via Hong Kong, after a shamefully whistle-stop visit to Sydney. Oh, how I ached to get to know the city better and then take the extra three-hour journey on to my hometown of Christchurch in New Zealand. But responsibilities back home mean a reacquaintance with my homeland must wait a little while yet.
The Qantas onboard dining offer might just be the best I have experienced. Certainly, my appetiser – sweet and sour shallots with prosciutto, goat’s curd, pine nuts and currants – is right up there among the finest inflight cuisine I have sampled in 30 years doing this job. It was so good that I looked up its creator. It transpires that the menu celebrates the 20th anniversary of the partnership between Qantas and Neil Perry, creator of the Rockpool restaurant group and one of the country’s most famous chefs.
The crew are friendliness personified and, hey, who needs inflight entertainment when you have a window view like mine? I reckon Qantas could develop a thriving sub-business simply taking people on day-trip flights around this magnificent country.
Talking about top-class viewing, let’s just say I’ve been treated to a double bill. Earlier today I took a long, slow, pre-departure walk around the International Terminal. The commercial offer here is very good; its best moments (beauty, luxury, destination and F&B) touching best-in-class status. It may also be the most photogenic airport retail offer in the world. The arena (for that is what it is) is full of natural light; buzzing with crowds and commerce; and simply oozing vibrancy, diversity and a lovely combination of elegance and egalitarianism. It’s vast and yet somehow not overwhelming; fast but not frenzied; exciting, eclectic and engaging.
And it’s got character. As a rule, Aussies take what they do but not themselves very seriously. That’s a beguiling national behavioural characteristic that explains the simultaneous easy charm and efficiency of this airport. Security is super-fast, the wayfinding easy, the digital signage stunning, heck even the immigration officials are pleasant (“What brings you to Sydney mate?… Really, you’re doing a story on the airport? You know, they just closed my favourite coffee shop, tell them to reopen it soon.”)
I see the same traits in the fantastic crew onboard QF127. Over a glass of S.C. Pannell Adelaide Hills 2016 Sauvignon Blanc (preceded by a brilliantly fresh Brian Croser Chardonnay) I chat with senior crew member Peter Williams. Every year he heads away on holiday to meet his brother in Darwin (who sounds like he would be played by Paul Hogan in a movie) and fish and hunt off the land. He tells me some entrancing, enticing tales of the rawness, excitement and occasional dangers involved. Peter is professionalism personified but also a laid-back, personable bloke. What a marvellous ambassador for Qantas and for country.
As I write, we’re crossing the far northern tip of Queensland, heading across the ocean towards Hong Kong. To the immediate north is Papua New Guinea. I chat with one of Peter’s colleagues, Glen, from Sydney, another top guy, and we both marvel at the magnificent coastline below, Azura-blue sea and golden sand. Small puffs of cloud hang in the sky like tufts of cotton wool. It’s a beautiful farewell to a beautiful land.
I comment how empty it all looks below. How come there are no resorts, no development, I ask? “You can’t swim in those waters,” says Glen. “The crocs will get you.” A Bill Bryson-esque conversation ensues. This country has all the charms in the world but it also has all its perils. Crocs? Check. Sharks? Check. Spiders? Check, check and triple check. Snakes? How could you even ask, mate? Check. Jellyfish? Check. Stingrays? Check. Huge, man-eating Koala bears that will tear you from limb to limb? Mmm, maybe not (though they might cuddle you to death) but you get my drift. Heinemann Duty Free at Sydney Airport just may be the safest place in Australia.
“You wouldn’t see poisonous spiders in Sydney, though, would you?” I ask Glen. “All the time,” he replies with a laugh. “I see Redbacks constantly in my garden. But you’re not looking for them and they’re not looking for you.”
I am not reassured. If I ever move to Sydney I vow to live on the 60th floor and not have a single pot plant. “What about funnel-web spiders?” I ask, believing they can kill by simply staring at you from 100 metres (in my case it would be true as I would have a heart attack if I saw one). “Oh, you wanna be careful of them,” agrees Glen. “They’re big and hairy and you can die.” And then the clincher. “You get them in the swimming pools in springtime. You need to be a bit careful.”
A bit careful? Make that 130 floors up with no swimming pool. And pool or no pool I will live in one of those old-fashioned deep-diving suits to protect me. In fact, after Glen describes the “wrigglers” [snakes] on the farm where his girlfriend lives north of Sydney – “there’s lots of them there, many poisonous” – I decide bleak old snakeless, poisonous spiderless, sharkless and crocodiless London town isn’t such a bad place to live after all.
We’re now 3003km out of Sydney, yet we’ve just left Australia. Such incredible expanse. We’re crossing the Arafura Sea with Port Moresby to the right and Darwin far, far to the left. It’s time to reflect on a wonderful couple of days with the Sydney Airport retail team who are rightly proud of what they have achieved over the past couple of years. I’m preparing a major report for our Cannes Print and Interactive editions and I can already see it as one of the most visual features we’ve ever done.
Last night I had dinner with Glyn at Café Sydney in Circular Quay. Great food, wine, company and (especially) great views. What a lucky man I am to do the job I do and to meet the people I meet around the world. It is an honour to be able to commentate on, showcase and reflect the energy, excellence and commitment of the people I meet through this compelling industry of ours.
What Sydney Airport and its commercial partners have achieved here is at times sensational. Heinemann Duty Free’s space feels as big as the hinterland of Australia, yet it works. A superb troika of ‘City View’ F&B outlets – The Bistro by Wolfgang Puck, Heineken House and Kitchen by Mike, all offering magnificent views of the airport and the city skyline beyond – takes airport ‘catering’ to a new level. There’s something for everyone, too, from Vegemite to Victoria’s Secret, at all pricepoints. Late for my plane, I grabbed a California Roll at Sushia. Fresh, filling, fantastic – all for a fiver.
Costa Kouros and his AWPL team have put together a well-ranged, visually alluring and wholly coherent Think Sydney destination merchandise proposition (pictured above). And the luxury offer? Well, quite simply, there is nothing like it in the airport world. Not at Heathrow, nor Changi, Hong Kong, LAX, nor Incheon. Look at the photo below: Tiffany & Co, Hermès, Gucci, Burberry and Rolex all lined up in a lustrous row. But it’s not just the brand names that stand out. Look at those magnificent facades, each some 8m high. In Tiffany’s case, the boutique looks out over the airport via an internal window, a giant Qantas tail beckoning the shopper in as much as the glittering jewellery on show does.
Despite all this retail, walk-through remains just that, not ‘force through’ as in so many airports. There’s a large neutral post-security area that allows passengers to destress before they enter the store, a welcome change to the former abrupt transition.
FID screens abound and, get this, the instructions (relax, go to gate, boarding, final call etc) are in English and the language of the destination. Where did you see that before? Think of the parlance too. ‘Relax’. I doubt I’ve ever seen that word in any airport communication.
The pictures above and below capture some of the story, some of the passion, some of the excellence and some of the drama of Sydney Airport’s International Terminal. Look out for my extensive report in our Cannes Print and Interactive editions in early October. Sydney and Australia, I will return. I just won’t go in the water. Or into anyone’s garden.