This opinion article by Jennifer Westacott, Chief Executive of the Business Council of Australia, was published in The Daily Telegraph on 9 August 2013 under the title ‘Leadership Needed on New Airport for Sydney’.
For almost two years now, this newspaper has rightly called for action on Sydney’s future airport needs.
As someone who participated in a two-year federal study on Sydney’s aviation priorities, I thought it might be useful to make a few points to inform the debate.
My fear is that our failure to properly discuss and take action on Sydney’s long-term airport needs will be another example of our inability as a nation to get important things done. We can’t afford to risk choking off the main gateway to our nation, so let’s debate this properly and carefully.
The study I participated in was not a study into a second airport site but rather a study into Sydney’s future aviation needs. After extensive consultation and expert advice, it made a number of critical recommendations. The most important was that Kingsford Smith Airport should remain as Sydney’s main airport. KSA is a very valuable economic asset but we need to make sure it works better, both on the ground and in the air.
We need to increase the number of planes that can take off and land each hour while leaving the curfew in place. We need to manage the curfew more efficiently and with common sense.
We need to encourage more passengers and airport workers to travel by train to the airport by making the train fares the same as normal suburban fares, as well as increasing the frequency and quality of train services.
Through planning and funding of major transport links needed around the airport and Port Botany, the federal and NSW governments need to jointly fix traffic flow around the airport. This is not a city priority, this is a national priority.
So the first step must be to make KSA work more effectively. As someone who lives under the flight path, I signed off on the need for more planes taking off and landing each hour because I know it’s in Sydney’s and Australia’s interest that we have as much capacity as we can at our primary airport.
The second step is to start planning and providing for another airport to service the greater Sydney market. As we continue to grow and prosper, as we must to sustain our good standard of living, the long-term capacity of KSA simply won’t be enough. Passenger movements at KSA are forecast to double to 76.8 million by 2035. There will be little scope to expand capacity to meet this growth in demand beyond that level. The capacity to provide slots to new entrants will have been exhausted by 2027. Road and rail access to KSA will become heavily congested within years.
The simple fact is it takes a very long time to plan and build an airport and the surrounding transport and commercial infrastructure. So let’s do it now and not leave it too late to act. If we just do nothing, we will continue to put up with congestion, inefficient services and the inevitable reduction in our economic wellbeing.
We need to act now to reserve the site, preserve the rail and road corridors and preserve the air corridors so a second airport can expand and grow as demand grows. This will ensure we can have things like a decent rail system because we have done the work now to plan it properly.
Reserving the site will also mean that the community will have certainty and can plan the future. It will mean business can also plan its future and invest with certainty.
The committee I worked on recommended that Badgerys Creek was the best site because of the economic and employment opportunities it would provide growing communities in the western Sydney region, and its proximity to road and rail links serving the greater Sydney region. The site is owned by the Commonwealth, it’s ready to go, and would cost less and be less disruptive than all other options.
The third priority is to expand the capacity of our other regional airports like Richmond in Sydney’s west, Williamtown near Newcastle and Canberra. Does all this matter? You bet it does.
Sydney, as the capital of a state representing about one third of the national economy, is vitally important for Australia’s total economy. Sydney is not competing with Melbourne, it is competing with cities like Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai. We simply must have capacity to expand the number of planes that will come from the Asian region and indeed other parts of the world.
If we seriously want to be connected to Asia, having airport capacity at KSA and a second site that can expand and grow and encourage Asian airlines to fly here directly, will be absolutely vital.
If we don’t sort all this out, it won’t be the case that more flights go to Brisbane and Melbourne. It will be that Australia loses its competitive advantage in Asia and loses some of the economic advantages of closer engagement.
It also matters for growing employment and providing air services to people and businesses in Western Sydney, home to two million people today and growing to three million by 2036, and currently representing a $100 billion economy. Western Sydney deserves its own airport.
Continuing the stop-start approach to expanding capacity at KSA and putting action off on a second airport site for another 10 years will cost Australia more. It will also harm our competitiveness, put us behind other countries and close off opportunities.
This is fundamentally a leadership issue. Decisions like this are never easy and they cannot please everyone. But not making decisions is not a solution.