Sydney second airport: nearing reality after 40 years of obfuscation? Perhaps a solution in 2014


An announcement by Australia's Deputy Prime Minister, longstanding Transport Minister Anthony Albanese on 26-Jul-2013 suggested that the 40+ year saga to find a location for Sydney’s much-needed second airport may be moving towards a final phase. The political football has come down to a standoff where neither major political party has been willing to take the plunge for fear the other would take electoral advantage by opportunistically opposing it. Mr Albanese said he was ''absolutely determined'' to start construction of an airport within three years if Labor were re-elected (a Federal election is due within the next few months).

This stops short of actually committing to it, but is a welcome step. Sydney Airport chairman Max Moore-Wilton was unimpressed however, deriding it as a political gesture at election time.

Recent studies have pointed to Badgerys Creek as the best – seriously the only – option to ease the longer term capacity constraints at Sydney Kingsford Smith Airport, while highlighting additional major construction hurdles for the politically soft option near "next best" Wilton.

With the development of a greenfield airport taking up to 20 years to come to full fruition, the most recent study by the Department of Infrastructure and Transport, made public on 10-May-2013, also encourages the Australian Government to consider opening up the RAAF Base Richmond to narrowbody service, at least as an interim measure while a new airport is constructed, and potentially as a third jet airport for the city in the longer term.

The May-2013 study was the latest to highlight the inadequacies of Wilton as a suitable location for a second airport, pointing out that it would cost significantly more to build than the favoured Badgerys Creek option, would provide less economic benefit and is only ever likely to be an overflow airport to Sydney’s Kingsford Smith Airport.

The location of a second Sydney airport has been a political football for decades, failing to find the necessary bipartisan support. The latest study, which adds the previously unanticipated challenge of mining subsidence, should sound the death knell for Wilton. In addition the outcome of the study does however offer a potential low risk transition strategy using Richmond as a pressure release valve for the increasingly congested Sydney Airport while development of Badgerys Creek is progressed.

Deputy Prime Minister Anthony Albanese is the opening keynote speaker at CAPA's Australia Pacific Aviation Summit to be held at Sydney's Four Seasons Hotel, 7-9 August.
Heading the more than 100 speakers at this event are Etihad CEO James Hogan and Qantas CEO Alan Joyce.
The event will conclude with "The GREAT DEBATE - Sydney's second airport (or not)?", a panel session to be broadcast live on Sky TV News at 3PM on 9 August, hosted by Sky anchor David Speers and featuring Max Moore-Wilton, Paul Howes and media, business and airport representatives.

Click for more information on the Australia Pacific Aviation Summit

Sydney Airport will reach capacity by 2033, according to a joint study

Sydney’s existing and only international airport, Kingsford Smith Airport, is forecast to reach capacity by 2033, although the airport's current owners argue that the facility has the capacity to cope until 2045. It is just possible that this estimate contains grains of self interest; it varies greatly from the conclusions of earlier independent studies. But it also makes obvious just how elusive an unequivocal assessment is. There is no absolute when it comes to measuring "available capacity".

There are certainly ways in which the existing airport could deliver much more capacity; it is for example subjected to a complex formula imposed in the last century that artificially restricts aircraft movement numbers and applies a rigid nighttime curfew greatly limiting airline efficiencies. With sensitive marginal electorates neighbouring the near-city airport, political realities rear their heads as in many parts of the world.

The most authoritative report on Sydney's airport needs was published in Mar-2012, a highly detailed and very expensive "Joint Study on aviation capacity in the Sydney region". Jointly commissioned by the Australian and New South Wales Governments, this noted "there is no straightforward measure of the practical capacity of an airport. Demand varies dramatically across peak and non-peak periods."

The Joint Study however concluded that a supplementary airport in the Sydney basin is needed before the end of the next decade and the decision on a way forward should be made without delay.

The Joint Study found that by 2015 all peak slots at Sydney Airport will be allocated, by 2017 the long term aircraft noise distribution system will be able to operate only for limited periods, there will be inadequate aircraft stands by 2020, slots across all hours of the day will be allocated by 2027 and by 2033 demand across all operating hours will be unmet.

It concluded that, without a second airport to grow, the shortfall in aviation capacity in Sydney would lead to an annual AUD35 billion (USD34.1 billion) loss to the New South Wales economy. In 2012 the Gross State (of NSW) Product was AUD455 billion, or 31% of Australia's total – so these are substantial figures.

The Sydney Airport next election syndrome

The history of planning for a second Sydney Airport has many of the features of a comic farce, with frequent overtones of Monty Python. Politicians over the decades have lavishly squandered taxpayer funds on studies that briefly gained notoriety, before slipping back into the political morass – mostly to ensure that any decision could be postponed beyond the next election.

Deputy Prime Minister Albanese, also Minister for Infrastructure and Transport and whose aviation credentials are otherwise formidable, has the equally formidable disadvantage of occupying a marginal electorate in a noise-affected area near Sydney Airport.

In other circumstances this could be seen as encouraging the establishment of an alternative airport site. Instead, this and his government's fears of losing marginal seats has merely resulted in constraining the use of the existing airport, building complexity and inefficiency into its operational use.

The existing noise cap of 80 aircraft movements per hour is well below the level of which the airport is capable; moreover, the calculation is made on a complex basis which effectively ensures that the 80 movement cap is rarely achieved.

Minister Albanese responded to the 2012 report’s unanimous recommendation to use the Badgerys Creek site by saying "yes, but I told them that we would not build Badgerys". He did however explicitly recognise that if someone didn't do something, the economic loss to NSW would be extreme. The next step was to commission a geotechnical analysis of a site at Wilton ("the next best" according to the joint report) to determine what effect the potential land subsidence of old coal mining works under the site could have on the development.

Minister Albanese noted that the potential consequence of not reaching a consensus on a development site risked putting up a “Sydney’s full” sign and economic activity moving to other Australian centres or to other countries such as Singapore, Thailand or New Zealand.

Meanwhile, the Liberal-led state government equally wants nothing to do with any airport decision in the short term, while election issues loom large.

Opening RAAF Base Richmond to civilian operations is one part solution

In addition to its other explorations, the Government will further consider and discuss with the Department of Defence the possibility of opening the Richmond RAAF base for limited civilian operations, potentially by 2017.

Like Badgerys Creek, the Richmond option has been talked about and discarded many times over the years. The small size of Richmond means it is not a suitable candidate to replace either of the greenfield options, but its single runway could provide interim capacity for up to five million passenger movements per year while a permanent second airport is built.

Richmond also has the advantage that it is situated nearer to some of the fastest growing suburbs in the city.

Wilton, Badgerys Creek and Richmond sites in the Sydney region

Geographically challenged Wilton would be an overflow airport at best

Meanwhile, the Wilton site, located 85km southwest of the Sydney CBD, is even further from the main aviation markets in Sydney’s north and northwest. The distance from central Sydney means Wilton could only ever be an overflow airport for Sydney Airport, a concept of uncertain merit.

The May-2013 report concluded that the development of an airport at Wilton is possible, but was heavily caveated by engineering and environment concerns in addition to the much lower long term economic benefits it would deliver when compared to Badgerys Creek.

The study estimates construction of the airport would take 17 years to complete at a cost of at least AUD3.4 billion (USD3.3 billion) – AUD1 billion (USD974 million) more than the Badgerys Creek option, largely due to significant engineering hurdles at the Wilton site.

Substantial earthworks would be required to level the site, involving about 91 million cubic metres of cut and fill to level the site, about double the amount required at Badgerys Creek. Mine subsidence from previous coal extraction under the site poses “a major safety risk for any future development” and significantly reduces design flexibility. Significant engineering solutions will be required to ensure discharge of runoff and wastewater does not contaminate Sydney’s water supply and more than 60 species of flora and fauna in the study area are likely to be protected under the Environment Biodiversity and Conservation Protection Act 1999.

The geotechnical report on the site should be completed by the end of 2013 – just after the Federal election.

Although an international airport at Wilton could provide some economic benefits

Notwithstanding the “extremely difficult” and expensive environmental challenges of developing a full scale airport at the site, the 2013 study did find that a full international airport at Wilton could provide significant economic benefits including:

  • AUD5 billion (USD4.9 billion) additional direct expenditure in 2035, increasing to AUD20 billion (USD19.5 billion) in 2060.
  • AUD3.8 billion (USD3.7 billion) additional to NSW Gross State Product (GSP) by 2035, increasing approximately four-fold to AUD16.9 billion (USD16.5 billion) by 2060.
  • AUD4.1 billion (USD4 billion) additional to Australia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) by 2035, increasing to AUD20.0 billion (USD19.5 billion) by 2060.

The airport could build demand for 17.1 million passenger movements by 2035 and 44.2 million by 2060, provided it offered a range of services comparable to Sydney Airport. The wider Wilton area has a population of about 455,000 which is expected to increase by 72% to 786,000 by 2036.

Distribution of forecast demand at Sydney  Airport and Wilton as a full international airport: 2035 and 2060

Wilton could provide employment for 28,000 by 2060

Construction of the airport would create approximately 4,500 jobs while it would provide operational employment for about 15,400 jobs by 2035, increasing to 28,000 by 2060. Indirect employment for a further approximately 4,100 would be generated growing to 12,700 by 2060.

Aircraft noise at full capacity would affect approximately 1,500 people within the current population around Wilton of about 40,000, which is forecast to grow to 60,000 over the next 20 years.

Wilton has been included in a number of studies in the search for a suitable second airport for Sydney, including a draft environmental impact assessment in the mid-1980s along with Badgerys Creek. On all occasions Badgerys Creek was determined to be the preferred location.

But Badgerys Creek ticks the boxes as Sydney’s second airport

In reality the prospects of building an airport during this century at Wilton would have to be remote – and, as described above, of limited value.

Meanwhile, the Joint Study's preferred airport site at Badgerys Creek is located near the growth areas of south west Sydney and the Western Sydney Employment Area and 47km from the Sydney CBD. The area is connected to the key transport corridor of the M7, the future outer orbital and the rail link to Leppington. The region has a population of 760,000 which is expected to grow to 1 million by 2036. As a result, forecast demand for Badgerys Creek is 14% to 22% higher than for Wilton in 2060.

The 1,700 hectare Badgerys Creek site was originally chosen by the former Labor Government in the 1990s which had bought and reserved the necessary land in the late 1980s and provided development funding. The then Transport Minister actually turned the first ceremonial sod on the site and some preliminary work commenced in 1993; an airport manager was even appointed. After another couple of attempts, at least one of which led to the responsible Transport Minister being replaced, a subsequent (Liberal) Government eventually formally cancelled the project in 2002 when Sydney Airport was privatised, thus removing uncertainty and ensuring a higher price could be achieved for the sale.

The Badgerys Creek site remains in Government ownership and has passed all the environmental requirements for airport development – although further extensive studies and consultation would be inevitable prior to any future development.

The current Federal Labor Government later abandoned subsequently-revived plans for Badgerys Creek in 2009 as urban development in the area risked upsetting western Sydney marginal electorate voters. It is for similar reasons neither of the major federal government parties, nor the NSW state government supports construction at Badgerys Creek, despite apparently increasing wider community support for the option.

Planning restrictions around the site have however limited the extent of urban development, hence minimising the environmental impact the airport might have on the surrounding community, although these will still be greater than at Wilton, given Badgerys Creek’s closer proximity to densely populated areas.

Badgerys Creek was forecast to generate AUD24 billion in GDP

The 2012 Joint Study found that Badgerys Creek would generate AUD24.7 billion (USD24.1 billion) in direct expenditure by 2060, nearly AUD5 billion (USD4.9 billion) higher than Wilton over the same period.

An airport at Badgerys Creek is also forecast to generate greater economic benefits, contributing AUD20.3 billion (USD19.8 billion) to NSW's Gross State Product (GSP) by 2060, 20.4% more than Wilton; it would also deliver AUD23.9 billion (USD23.3 billion) in GDP to the national economy over that period, nearly 20% more than Wilton. As Badgerys Creek will cater for more passengers, it would also offer 49% more jobs than Wilton over the period to 2060.

But, the study concluded, Sydney Airport’s close proximity to the CBD, at just 8km from the centre, and its ease of access means that neither Wilton nor Badgerys Creek would be able to cater for the entire expected unmet demand.

Richmond can provide short term capacity relief to Sydney Airport

As various studies have also found, RAAF Base Richmond could help to reduce the pressure on Sydney Airport in the short term with relatively little capital investment, although it cannot be developed into a long term option as Sydney’s second airport. It has the great advantage that it could be prepared for commercial services by as soon as 2017, with the construction of a terminal and other necessary ground infrastructure.

Moreover the RAAF’s future at Richmond is under review by the Department of Defence and the recent study considers it a “plausible scenario” for the RAAF to relocate all flying squadrons from Richmond coinciding with the retirement of the C-130J Hercules aircraft, expected in the mid to late 2020s. Richmond’s role as an airbase has diminished over the years as many military operations previously based there have been moved to other airfields. The C-130J Hercules is now the only operational flying squadron at Richmond, though this will be joined by a squadron of 10 C-27J Spartan tactical lift aircraft from 2015, temporarily at least.

On the downside, Richmond’s single 2,134 metre runway is limited to narrowbody aircraft up to Boeing 737 and A320 size, generating total capacity of about five million passenger movements per year and would reach that limit by the mid 2030s.

Adding a north-south cross runway able to support all aircraft sizes could increase passenger movements to 20 million per year, in which case the airport would reach capacity in the late 2040s and contribute between AUD4 billion (USD3.9 billion) and AUD6 billion (USD5.9 billion) in GDP by that time (according to the report).

Richmond’s compact 280 hectare airfield, wedged between the towns of Richmond and Windsor, will not allow for a parallel international runway configuration. Richmond could, however, have a longer term future as a third jet airport for Sydney in its current single runway configuration providing ancillary capacity after a larger second airport is constructed.

Such an intermediate role would make Richmond unattractive to airlines already based at Sydney Airport due to the cost of duplicating services and infrastructure – but it would be useful to potential new entrants, a factor that helps explain the largely passive role that the main Australian airlines are playing in the discussion.

In addition there is the realpolitik risk that Richmond could also reduce the initial demand for and viability of a greenfield airport, risking further delays in construction of a permanent second airport solution, as politicians of all stripes took the easy option.

A Richmond/Badgerys Creek combination could offer a useful consumer and economic outcome in 2014

So Richmond is neither an alternative to Sydney Airport, nor a potential replacement for Badgerys Creek. Richmond does however offer a realistic added aviation option as a point-to-point, low-cost airline-friendly airport. The reality of airline operations has typically often been absent from this debate in the past, but despite its low profile part thus far, Richmond could deliver a seriously valuable service to the northwest region of Sydney.

So the ball is now firmly in the politicians’ court. The prospect of more reports to deflect bubbling demand is no longer a political option. The overwhelming preference from business, the tourism industry and increasingly the broader community has now swung around in favour of Badgerys Creek as a second airport site.

Wilton meanwhile was always going to be a mere political option and never a seriously viable one, given its distance from the main market, high construction costs and lower economic benefit – not to mention very questionable aviation value, as a distant secondary airport. With the hugely challenging issue of mining subsidence added to the equation, literally further undermining the appeal of the site as a major airport, Wilton should clearly be formally discarded as an option.

Given the long and winding history of this saga, it is undoubtedly unrealistic to expect any decision before the end of 2013. But, with a federal election safely then behind them, 2014 offers real hope that state and federal politicians can at last embrace a bipartisan approach by committing to advance Badgerys Creek as Sydney’s second airport – supported, initially at least, by narrowbody operations at Richmond.

Despite business and union groups in May-2013 forming an unprecedented alliance to convince the federal and state governments to commit to Badgerys Creek, the federal (Liberal) opposition reaffirmed that it has no plans to build an airport at Badgerys Creek and is instead waiting to see Sydney Airport's master plan which is due on 02-Dec-2013 (again, after the Federal election). A now-delicately balanced election outcome realistically validates reluctance on each side of the political spectrum. But no such excuse will remain in 2014.

Some poignancy is added to the story as Melbourne Airport, curfew-free and with plenty of suitable land, decided in late 2012 to add a third runway, both to provide for future expansion and, cheekily, to woo some of Sydney's would-be customers away.

Half a century on, there is still 'no easy answer', nor a single solution

The half century story of Sydney's non-second airport is a sad indictment on lack of political leadership in the national interest. Yet the blame cannot be heaped on one political party or another; all are equally culpable. Yet they are hardly alone in the developed world when it comes to running scared of airport development.

It has to be relevant too that most of the other incumbent industry stakeholders, sometimes banging the table with feathers, really have little interest in a change in the status quo. The prospect of needing to duplicate operations over two airports is one aspect; adding airport capacity that may stimulate new competition is another.

There is also the complexity of operating two airports in tandem; only a few major cities can practically support more than one large jet airport – and connecting surface transport infrastructure would be a crucial ingredient in a successful combination.

Other solutions, partial or otherwise do exist. For one thing, Sydney Airport is currently forced to operate well below its operational capability. The constraints of a fiercely imposed curfew and the randomness of the movements cap undoubtedly reduce Sydney's real potential. But no political party seems ready to grasp that nettle, despite the obvious economic benefits to the community that would instantly be released.

So, as the 2012 Joint Study concludes: 
"There is no single solution and no easy answer. 
"The need to act is clear. The costs of not acting are substantial. 
"There is a need to take action without delay to identify and secure a site for a supplementary airport as part of the long term solution. The range of potential airport sites within reach of Sydney has diminished as urban development has spread. If action is not taken quickly, the chance to secure the future of aviation for the Sydney region may be lost altogether."

The signs are now looking bright for some genuine movement in 2014. It's still not too late – but nearly.

See related reports:

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