Friday, June 14, 2013, 10:00
Troubled skies over Sydney
By Karl Wilson in Sydney

Troubled skies over Sydney
With little room to expand and operating under a strict noise curfew, analysts believe that Sydney Airport has reached its use-by date. (AFP)

By Earlier this year the former Australian prime minister, Bob Hawke, articulated what many Australians have been saying for years about Sydney Airport — it is a disgrace.

The outspoken Hawke didn’t mince his words when he told a local television reporter: “Sydney Airport is an absolute, bloody disgrace. We should be ashamed of it.

“There should be action to ensure that the quality of this dump that we’ve got now is lifted to international standard.”

For decades, successive governments — state and federal — have been arguing the case for a second airport to replace Sydney Airport which began commercial operations back in the 1920s.

Congested and operating under a strict noise curfew, the three-runway airport that stretches out into Botany Bay is one of the oldest continuously operated airports in the world.

Australia’s busiest airport handled 37 million passengers last year along with 321,630 aircraft movements.

With little room to expand, many analysts are now saying that the airport has reached its use-by date, and that Melbourne’s airport will soon eclipse Sydney’s.

Melbourne Tullamarine Airport, which was opened in 1970 to replace Essendon Airport, handled 29 million passengers last year.

Last month Melbourne Airport released plans for a major expansion and construction of a third runway.

One of the major drawbacks for Sydney Airport is that it operates under a strict curfew which limits operating hours to reduce noise levels for residents living under the various flights paths.

The curfew prevents aircraft from taking off or landing between the hours of 11pm and 6am, with fines of A$850,000 ($800,000) for violations.

In addition to the curfew, Sydney Airport also has a cap of 80 aircraft movements per hour, leading to increased delays during peak hours.

On June 5 Sydney Airport released a preliminary draft Master Plan for 2033 based on: No change to the curfew; no change to the aircraft movement cap; no change to noise sharing arrangements; no new flight paths; and no new runways

The only new proposals were a new road around the airport to ease road congestion and to merge terminals — a move which the Financial Review newspaper described as a “band aid” approach.

Decades of indecision along with lack of political will and vision may see Sydney lose its gateway status.

In 1986 the then Labor Government named Badgery’s Creek as the site for Sydney’s second airport.

Dozens of farmers and homeowners were forced to sell their properties to the government, and the tiny hamlet, 51 km west of Sydney’s central business district, saw its population fall from 1,560 to less than 400 today.

In the intervening years, nothing has been done with the site.

In May the government released a report costing A$1.5 million focusing on the viability of Wilton, 80 km southwest of Sydney, as a possible airport site.

Transport Minister Anthony Albanese, whose constituency is under the flight path to Sydney Airport, strongly believes that Wilton is the best site.

The only problem with Wilton is that it sits on a rich coal seam and the region is a honeycomb of mine tunnels.

Ken Morrison, chief executive of the Tourism and Transport Forum, says the simple reality is that Sydney needs a second airport.

“Forecasts show Sydney Airport will reach its maximum capacity at some point in the next 15 to 30 years,” he tells China Daily Asia Weekly.

“Ensuring we have adequate aviation capacity in Sydney is crucial to Australia’s economic prosperity.”

He says that rather than commissioning more consultants’ reports stating the obvious, there needs to be substantial changes to ensure aviation can continue to grow.

“First of all we need a modernization of some of the artificial government restrictions Sydney Airport faces,” he says. “This includes lifting the current cap of 80 aircraft movements an hour to 90, and allowing more flexibility for flights in the shoulder periods around the curfew.

“Second, we need to make better use of other existing airports in the Sydney region, which are currently reserved for small aircraft or the defense forces.”

Both measures will only buy the city some extra time and the planning of a second passenger airport needs to begin now, he adds.

He describes Sydney as unique for a city of its size relying on just one airport.

“Having a sole airport concentrates traffic congestion and other associated issues. Sydney’s demographics show population growth continuing in the western parts of the city and that is where any second airport should be located.”

He points out that the government already owns a suitable site of land at Badgery’s Creek, with all major studies referring to this as the obvious location for a new airport.

“Building an airport in Sydney’s west would grow the travel industry, rather than take passengers from the existing airport,” he adds. “It will give passengers more choice and provide international airlines greater access to Australia’s major gateway.”

Sydney Airport chief executive Kerrie Mather is quick to defend her airport, saying it is “still Australia’s global gateway, welcoming 42 percent of all international arrivals and 48 percent of Chinese arrivals”.

She says Sydney Airport remains Australia’s “most significant piece of transport infrastructure, supporting business, tourism and trade”.

Responding to questions from China Daily Asia Weekly, Mather says: “Sydney Airport contributes A$27.6 billion to the economy a year, supporting 28,000 full-time jobs ‘on airport’ across 800 businesses and organizations.”

China is one of the largest and most important markets for the airport, with 44 departures a week to four mainland cities, she says.

“We have had 12 percent compound growth in Chinese residents every year for the past four years, which has propelled China to become our second largest inbound market after New Zealand.”

She rejects some claims that the airport is reaching its capacity.

“The airport is using an average of 50 of the 80 regulated movements per hour, although the infrastructure has capacity for significantly more,” she says.

“Numerous state and federal government studies show Sydney Airport has adequate capacity for the foreseeable future.”

She says Sydney Airport is working to “maximize its potential by investing in new additional capacity to meet growth in demand”.

“We (Sydney Airport) have invested more than A$2 billion in new capacity and improvements over the last decade and expect to invest the same amount over the next decade,” she adds.

“Improvements in the Master Plan include enhancing ground transport access, increasing airline efficiency, and greater passenger connectivity through integrated international, domestic and regional terminals.”

Mather says there are no plans for a fourth runway.

“Sydney Airport has three runways — more than most gateway airports — and no plans to build more.”



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