Fifty years on, Tulla staffer recalls an exciting, ‘futuristic’ place


The airport turns 50 on Wednesday but because of COVID-19 restrictions, there will be no public celebration.

Instead, a 50 will be painted on the airport’s tarmac and a 3D illuminated sign will be installed on the Melbourne Wall in Terminal 2 departures.

Art and purple lounge chairs: Melbourne Airport circa 1978.

Art and purple lounge chairs: Melbourne Airport circa 1978.Credit:Civil Aviation Historical Society

A coffee table book has been created just for staff.

Longtime staff member, Vic Zammit, 65, remembers the airport in 1970 as “futuristic”.

You could see a movie or a space exhibition in the Astrojet Centre – a two-storey building in front of the terminal.

In the TopAir bar and restaurant on the terminal’s second floor, you could drink alcohol long after Melbourne pubs closed at 10pm, and also on Sundays.

Airport bars in the 1970s were open later than city pubs.

Airport bars in the 1970s were open later than city pubs. Credit:Civil Aviation Historical Society

Visitors gawked at giant flapper boards that announced flight arrivals and departures, one letter at a time.

Crowds watched planes from open-air balconies. You were welcome to smoke, pretty much anywhere.

When Mr Zammit was 15, two months after the airport opened, he got a school holiday job tending the rose garden, which has long been obliterated by the multi-storey car park.

After leaving school, Mr Zammit had stints in admin at the Department of Civil Aviation and at Essendon Airport, before in 1977 scoring his first full-time job at Melbourne Airport, issuing security IDs.

'Futuristic': Melbourne Airport in 1971 with its rose garden, where the multi-storey car park now is.

‘Futuristic’: Melbourne Airport in 1971 with its rose garden, where the multi-storey car park now is.Credit:Civil Aviation Historical Society

During the 1980s he was part of a search and rescue unit based at the airport, once acting as a “spotter” in a plane searching for a missing yacht in the Melbourne-to-Hobart yacht race – it was never found.

His current job as a supervisor in the Airport Co-ordination Centre includes assigning arriving planes a gate and changing gates if there are equipment faults and delays.

“No two days are the same,” said Mr Zammit. “You need to be level-headed, you need to be able to deal effectively in a high stress situation.”

As an airport duty manager in the 1980s, he escorted rock band the Rolling Stones to their flight, as crowds applauded.

Vic Zammit at work in 1985.

Vic Zammit at work in 1985.Credit:Melbourne Airport

But what stands out for Mr Zammit are the everyday scenes – at international departures, he used to watch elderly couples farewell relatives, knowing they might never see them again.

Mr Zammit’s father was an early airport electrician. Now Mr Zammit’s son and niece work there – in security and insurance.

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Mr Zammit said the airport expanded rapidly after privatisation in 1997, particularly in international duty free, which today is “like a department store”.

He said there are still many people who know him and stop to chat. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the airport is the quietest he’s ever seen it but he still loves being here.

“It’s an exciting place to work,” he said.

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