Delays at Melbourne woeful international airport

When arriving into Melbourne Airport on an international flight, it isn’t Australia’s famous scenery that greets visitors, but massive queues. So what the hell is going on?

The queue to exit stretched around the entire baggage carousel!

This week industrial action was to blame:

Passengers at international airports across the country can expect delays due to a customs and immigration staff strike during peak flying periods on Monday.

Airports are asking Australians due to travel abroad to arrive as early as they can.

The four-hour protected industrial action will hit international airports in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Gold Coast, Cairns, Adelaide, Perth and Darwin.

But even when customs and immigration staff are all on duty, Melbourne Airport is woefully underprepared for the number of passengers who pass through it.

The problem is caused by multiple factors, of which the simultaneous morning arrivals of three A380 aircraft (Qantas, Emirates and Singapore Airlines) is one.

The first hurdle when arriving into Melbourne is a the ‘last chance’ duty free store that every passenger is forced to weave their way through.

Negotiating the duty free store in the arrivals terminal that blocks the way out

Provided you avoid knocking over any bottles of duty free booze, it is time to clear customs and immigration. While holders of Australian passports can use the automated ‘SmartGate’ barriers, there is still a line to use them.

Once past that barrier, it is time to pick up your bags. Again, this is where the inadequate facilities at Melbourne Airport shine – there are seven luggage carousels in the international arrivals, but only two of them are large enough to fit an A380 load of bags.

When I last arrived into Melbourne my flight was assigned to carousel 7 – the second largest carousel available, but still too small to hold all of the bags being unloaded from the Singapore Airlines A380 I had arrived on.

Waiting for our bags to emerge on the carousel

Bags of non-Australian citizens began to pile up on the carousel, as the owners were still stuck in the line to clear immigration. Once the carousel fills up to a second level of bags, the sensors prevent any new bags from being dumped onto the belt.

An entire A380 load of luggage dumped onto an undersized carousel

Meanwhile everyone else has to twiddle their thumbs.

No more bags coming out onto the carousel because it is already overloaded

Eventually my bag came out, so it was time for the customs and quarantine line, which snaked around the baggage hall – it took 20 minutes to reach the *actual* queuing area.

Long wait to clear customs and quarantine formalities

By that point, customs and quarantine staff had given up on processing three A380s loads of passengers, so they just carried out a cursory inspection of our ‘anything to declare’ cards, and sent the low risk passengers straight out the exit.

Queue to exit zigs and zags around the baggage hall

There are many things I miss when I head out of Australia, but our piss-poor excuses for airports are not one.

More on baggage carousels

Melbourne Airport has seven baggage carousels in the international arrivals hall – a diagram can be found here. Carousels 1 through 4 date back to at least the 1990s-era overhall of the terminal, with the first 90-metre long A380 carousel being added in 2006. This was followed by a sixth and seventh carousel in 2008-12 as part of the expansion of the international terminal.

More stories of incompetence

Here are the 2011 experiences of Peter Clark, an aviation commentator based in Auckland:

To top it off after this day of problems I have been told that the airport managers intend directing airlines to hold passengers on board arrived flights when the facilities can’t cope with peak loads.

And from Reddit in January 2014.


First time flying into Melbourne airport from overseas? This seems like a typical day. Its always like this everytime I fly in. Its compounded by the fact that international flights tend to land in groups.


Yep, nothing unusual here. Happens many times (last time I was there, I came in on an A380, Another 747 landed straight after us. Was packed for ages).

And finally a video in February 2015 from Will Horton, an analyst at CAPA – Centre for Aviation.


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22 Responses to “Delays at Melbourne woeful international airport”

  1. Jon R says:

    Leaving Melbourne Airport isn’t much better – you have to line up for ages to be asked why you are leaving the country. Not sure I’ve ever been anywhere else that has this delay.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      I’m struggling to think of any delays I have experienced when leaving other countries – however when departing Hungary, Romania, Ukraine and Russia they all had a good look at my passport and visas on the way out.

  2. kjwx says:

    Better signage would be a good start at Melbourne Airport. We flew in from New Zealand for the first time last week and quickly became confused in the sea of arriving passengers. With only three staff to direct these masses, we spent most of the time wondering if we’d queued in the right line.
    Leaving Melbourne was far more stressful. Granted it was 10pm and at least five international flights were departing at about the same time but that didn’t excuse the screening staff being downright surly.
    Through in the Customs hall, passengers on non-budget flights were assisted by airline staff, with most being processed in just a few minutes. The rest of us had to shuffle through a queue that snaked at least eight times across the cavernous space to just two open Customs counters – though our collective mode was lightened somewhat by the smartarse behind me who kept bleating like a sheep at random intervals.
    A traveller I met at Christchurch Airport a few months ago told me he always arrives three hours early for an international flight and where possible always pays extra to fly Emirates. On one occasion, he arrived at check-in to find that his passport had expired; Emirates staff had a replacement organised for him within an hour.
    I can’t see that happening on JetStar or its rival cheapies.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      Airline staff directing passengers on arrival is a new one – it’s been a few years since I’ve left the country. Back in 2013 they only had a pair of Customs staff wandering the floor to direct people in the line.

  3. beren scott says:

    thing is, you didnt object to being stuck on the plane for 8 to 12 hours, surely you can manage melbourne airport? see this is the thing, if a wait is unavoidable, people arent stressed, but the moment we think a delay could be avoided we lose our shit over it.

    • Marcus Wong says:

      Being stuck on a plane isn’t enjoyable, but it is something you expect to endue – seeing baggage carousels overloaded with suitcases, and the line to exit overflowing the queuing area isn’t.

  4. Paul O'Connor says:

    Interesting article, Marcus. When my wife and I came back from Bali a few weeks ago, the customs people just looked at our declaration card and showed us straight to the exit, even though we had something to declare.
    By the way, are you allowed to take photos in the airport???

  5. Jacob says:

    What about the journey home.

    Would it help you if there was a 160km/h railway from IATA MEL to Southern Cross Station?

    • Marcus Wong says:

      Because I live in the western suburbs a 160km/h airport railway wouldn’t do anything except give me a new way to speed right past my house on my way to the slow train back home. πŸ˜›

  6. Alasdair says:

    Marcus, it’s not only Australian passport holders that can use the e-gates. UK & NZ passports are accepted. I believe US & Singapore are also accepted.
    They also need to get the e-system for departures too!

  7. Andrew says:

    While our last entry was ok, 10pm on a weeknight, we have had terrible experiences in the past and it’s never been as bad anywhere else. Melbourne’s facilities are old but mostly it comes down to insufficient staff to process the numbers.

  8. Michael Angelico says:

    It’s not just the runways that have to be upgraded to take A380s… >imagines what it’ll be like if anyone buys the all-economy stretch Airbus are offering with nearly 1000 seats<

    Theoretically, the airport could regulate the flow of passengers by not booking three A380 flights to land at the same time. But I guess that would make things tough on whichever airline doesn't get a slot in the time band most popular with the passengers.

    Whenever I fly overseas I try to get an off peak flight, and airport congestion is one of the factors that influence that. I wonder what airports and airlines can do to get that message out to their potential passengers?

    • Marcus Wong says:

      Airports already charge arriving airlines landing and passenger movement fees – maybe peak and off peak fees is one way to ease the squeeze?

      However in the case of hub based airlines like Emirates, Qatar and Etihad, they don’t have much room to move flight times due to connections elsewhere.

  9. Jason says:

    Once we got home from overseas on a Saturday morning, and every baggage carousel was in use. I guess there must have been delays. The queue snaked around between the throngs of people trying to get their bags. It was crazy. Almost dangerous – the whole area was packed as dense as a nightclub.

    Total queueing time to exit was about an hour. (Stress was heightened by the fact that after queueing about 45 minutes my girlfriend couldn’t find her passport. When we were just about to show up at the pointy end of the queue some official appeared like magic and said he’d found it on the floor. phew!)

  10. M says:

    This is exactly what I dread every time I arrive in Melb. I’m always exhausted as I can never sleep on planes and that airport just makes it so much more stressful with the long wait times to get out. I travel to India fairly often and I’m sad to say that they are much more efficient than Melbourne Airport. It’s pathetic!

  11. David says:

    Just flew in and out of Melbourne for the first time in late July. I came in on an A320 from Christchurch, landing at 7:30am, and was through the immigration/baggage quite quickly. On the other hand, my wife and daughter arrived on an A380 from LAX 30 minutes before me but were still waiting for bags to hit the belt. It was really clear that the A380s overstretch everything.

    That said, if you think Melbourne is bad, I suspect you haven’t flown though LAX or many other US airports recently πŸ˜‰ We hold US and NZ passports and find the American airport staff are world leaders in treating passengers badly..

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