Sydney Future Still Unclear

The ‘Joint Study on Aviation Capacity in the Sydney Region’ produced 20 recommendations to tackle Sydney’s future aviation needs. (All images – Sydney Airport)

Emma Kelly reports on how the Australian Government faces tough decisions about its major gateway’s future.

The ‘Joint Study on Aviation Capacity in the Sydney Region’ produced 20 recommendations to tackle Sydney’s future aviation needs. (All images – Sydney Airport)

The long-running saga – 40 years and counting – of how to meet the future aviation capacity needs of the Sydney region continues, despite the release earlier this year of a joint report by the Australian Federal and New South Wales (NSW) state governments designed to resolve the issue.
The ‘Joint Study on Aviation Capacity in the Sydney Region’, published in March, resulted in 20 recommendations to tackle Sydney’s future aviation needs, including accelerating investment in the existing Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport and opening Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) bases, at Richmond for example, to civil traffic in order to meet near-term capacity requirements.  The region’s long-term capacity needs can only be met through the development of a new airport for the region, the report concludes, with Badgerys Creek, 30 miles (50km) west of the central business district (CBD), deemed the most suitable site, followed by Wilton in the southwest, 50 miles (80km) from the CBD.
But there lies the major sticking point, with the Australian Federal Government rejecting Badgerys Creek as a suitable site for a second airport for the region.  The NSW Government, meanwhile, is not in favour of the development of a second airport anywhere in the Sydney basin and instead proposes the development of a high-speed rail (HSR) link to Canberra, and the continued development of the nation’s capital airport to meet the capacity needs of the wider Sydney region.
The joint study, compiled by a steering committee made up of state and federal government representatives, former ministers, academics and business leaders, was faced with what it describes as, “one of the most critical planning and investment decisions facing Sydney, NSW and Australia”.
The need for additional long-term capacity is clear.  With the Sydney metropolitan area’s population likely to reach 6.2 million by 2036 and another two million in the surrounding region, the demand for regular public transport (RPT) services in the region will double to approximately 88 million passenger trips per year by 2035, and double again by 2060.
There are already problems due to the lack of aviation infrastructure in Sydney.  On weekdays, for example, there is no additional capacity for new regional services during the morning and afternoon peaks.  By 2015, the airport is unlikely to have any take-off and landing slots available for new services during peak times.  Road and rail access to the airport is already approaching gridlock at times.
The joint study clearly shows the cost of any further delay in a decision.  “The need to act is clear.  The costs of not acting are substantial,” the report warns.  In terms of economic costs, the report points out that if Sydney’s future aviation demand cannot be met, by 2026, across the Australian economy, it could cost A$59.5 billion (US$62bn) in 2010 dollars in foregone expenditure, and A$34 billion (US$35.7) in foregone gross domestic product.  By 2060, the report predicts the annual estimate of lost jobs would be approximately 57,000 in NSW and 77,900 nationally.
The report says there is “no single solution and no easy answer” to Sydney’s capacity questions, but rather a “co-ordinated suite of measures” is necessary in the short-, medium- and long-term.
In the near-term the study concludes: “There are important measures that can be taken at Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport and other existing airports to get the most out of the existing sites.  These would delay by a few years the worst impacts of the capacity shortfall.”
The study does not support any changes to Sydney Airport’s existing curfew, which the government has previously said it would not change anyway, and does not believe that regional services should be moved to other airports.
Instead, the report calls for infrastructure work at the airport, including upgrading taxiways, gates and terminals, to be brought forward to relieve current pressures.  The work is currently scheduled in stages, with some work due for completion by 2019 and more by 2029.
It also says decisions must be taken quickly on the airport’s long-term proposal to implement a redesign based around two airline alliance-based precincts.  Late last year, the airport proposed a major redesign that would see the existing domestic and international terminals integrated into two airline alliance-based precincts combining international, domestic and regional services under one roof by 2019.  The move is designed to make better use of the airport’s facilities, boost aircraft gates/parking, support future terminal expansion and also has the potential to improve traffic flow around the airport, the airport believes.
But even if the redesign goes ahead the investment currently proposed would not be enough to meet demand in the medium- and long-term, according to the joint study.  By 2035, the airport would need to handle more than 76 million passenger movements – compared with 35.6 million passengers last year – and 460,000 aircraft movements a year.  By 2035, there will be practically no scope for further growth of regular public transport services, as well as increasing delays, costs and road congestion, it warns.
Sydney Airport, however, argues that its integrated approach could deliver more capacity over a longer period than the joint study suggests.
The report concludes that the development of a new airport is the only long-term solution. Meanwhile, the NSW Government maintains its position against a second Sydney Airport.

The study says that other airports in the region could provide supplementary capacity, such as Newcastle Airport at RAAF Base Williamtown, although it has been selected by the RAAF as a future primary fighter base.  It also suggests Canberra Airport, which is curfew-free and can support substantial overnight freight operations, could take up some capacity, while general aviation Bankstown Airport could be opened up to turboprop RPT operations, and RAAF Base Richmond could take some civil traffic.
Development of a new airport is the only long-term solution, the report concludes.  A second airport would be required from around 2030, which means that governments need to decide on a location and start investing in the next five years.  The spread of urban development means it is increasingly difficult to find a suitable location, says the study.  It warns: “The opportunity to secure a suitable site is likely to disappear altogether if action is not put in train now.”
It initially identified 18 possible locations, of which five were deemed the most suitable and assessed in detail.  Badgerys Creek, which was acquired by the Commonwealth in the 1980s as a future airport site, remains the best location due to its location to growing western Sydney regions, close rail and road links and protection from development.  However, the Howard Government dropped support for Badgerys Creek in the early 2000s and today’s Gillard government maintains that view.
Wilton is the next best site, says the report.  At Wilton, airspace interactions with Kingsford Smith Airport are less constrained than other sites, a smaller number of people would be impacted by land acquisition and aircraft noise and Sydney’s growth is expected to spread more to the southwest in the long term.  But it stresses that processes need to be put in place now to secure the site and undertake a full environmental assessment and airport planning.
In late July, the Federal Government appointed technical experts and consultants to conduct a scoping study into Wilton’s suitability as a second Sydney airport.  The study involves detailed economic, social and environmental investigations to assess the impact and viability of an airport at Wilton, says the government.  It will also explore the use of RAAF Base Richmond for limited civil operations, including any social, economic and environmental impact.
Consultants WorleyParsons, in partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers and Airport Master Planning Consultants, will conduct a detailed assessment of environmental and infrastructure aspects near Wilton.  Ernst & Young will be responsible for examining the scale and nature of impacts of an airport development on the surrounding Wilton and Richmond communities, including aircraft noise, employment opportunities and infrastructure investment.  Global consultants Booz and Company will conduct passenger demand analysis.
These studies are expected to take at least six months, said Anthony Albanese MP, Australia’s Minister for Infrastructure and Transport.
The Federal Government has also called on Sydney Airport to develop a strategy to invest in terminal, apron, taxiway and other improvements, including development of a new master plan – 12 months earlier than originally planned.  The Federal Government says it is also working with the NSW Government on a long-term plan to meet projected road and rail demand.
The NSW Government, meanwhile, maintains its position against a second Sydney Airport.  “The most sensible option is to build a fast rail link to the federal capital and use Canberra Airport for additional capacity for flights,” says NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell.
Canberra Airport supports this view, releasing in June plans for an A$140 million high speed rail (HSR) facility to be constructed adjacent to the airport’s new terminal.
“We have long been advocates of a high-speed rail link between Canberra and Sydney, and that reality is getting closer with strong support from NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell and the ongoing stalemate over where to build Sydney’s second airport,” says Canberra Airport’s Managing Director, Stephen Byron.  The journey time between the two cities would be 57 minutes.
Stage two of the Commonwealth Government’s HSR study is due for completion by the end of this year, including recommendations for the route.  Perhaps Sydney’s aviation future will become clearer by then.