THE $300 million upgrade of the Gold Coast Airport may be poised for a start in a matter of weeks, but plans are already under way to cater for a super growth phase over the next 15 years to cope with a tripling of passenger numbers.

The airport operator, Queensland Airports Ltd (QAL), estimates the Coolangatta terminal facility could be handling 16 million passengers annually by 2031, or about 60 per cent of the current capacity of Sydney Airport.

"We are bursting at the seams and we need to deal with that," says QAL chief executive Chris Mills.

Gold Coast Airport handled six million passengers for the first time last year, up from four million in 2008 and, according to Mills, the pace of growth at up to 40 per cent every seven years offers no scope for complacency.

While the latest upgrade will cater for passenger numbers over the next seven years, QAL plans to tackle looming capacity issues through a new 20-year master plan to be released in October.

Under the plan, the airport will be extended further south, with land also allocated for as yet unfunded connections to heavy rail through the Tugun bypass and light rail along the Gold Coast Highway.

The airport is also being groomed to cater for a growing appetite for premium services to the Gold Coast, a market traditionally dominated by low-cost carriers over the past decade.

"While low-cost carriers are still a very important part of our business, about a third of our business is full service carriers as well," says Mills.

"The Gold Coast as a destination is evolving, particularly though the investment taking place at the moment. Six years ago it was almost entirely low cost.

"As we look ahead in the next seven years, we're expecting another 30 to 40 per cent growth and we're expecting that mix to change. So the airport needs to respond to that.

"So far this year we've continued to set records. January saw over 600,000 passengers in one month. The Gold Coast is growing, the airport is growing and we have to invest now to meet the needs of passengers."

The current $300 million capital works program is expected to start in about a month, with the first stage to be completed before the Commonwealth Games.

The key focus of the project, which will double the size of the airport, will be the creation of a new three-level terminal to the south of the existing facility.Construction of the second stage, to begin after the Games, will involve the full redevelopment of the existing terminal.

The new-look airport will make extensive use of full-length glass panels both internally and externally, taking advantage of natural light to enhance sustainability. It also brings the comfort of all-weather air bridges to the tourism capital for the first time.

"It was deliberate to have as much glass and natural light in there as possible, and really in the theming of it we're saying this is the Gold Coast, this is the experience," says Mills.

QAL is also bringing the airport up to speed on the technology front, with plans to introduce facial recognition systems and a focus on efficiencies at check-in and baggage collection.

"What we will be doing in the next 12 months is moving into self-service check in and bag drop," says Mills.

"While it's not new technology it is new to the Gold Coast. Some of the things we are also looking at is remote baggage drop off, particularly for the Commonwealth Games where athletes can drop off their bags at the Athlete's Village."

Mill says a survey of Gold Coast residents last year gave the airport a 'pass mark', as 67 per cent viewed it favourably and about 13 per cent viewed it negatively.

Some of the reasons around the negativity include the lack of air bridges and facilities and issues around bag collection.

"The most stressful time at the airport is when you check in and that's what we're trying to do with technology to reduce the stress," says Mills.

"We want an A or an A-plus on our report card. This program is a game changer. It's about that first and last impression for passengers."

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