Australia's airport circus starts again

Talk about a tale of two worlds: China will open a new airport every 40 days on average for the next five years because of the demand for travel being generated by the country's booming economy.

Australia also has a strong economy and booming demand for air travel, but hasn't opened a major new airport since Brisbane's in 1988 and Melbourne's before that in 1970.

The nation's No.1 airport is, in world terms, a small airfield with two-and-a-half runways in the Sydney suburbs and curfew restrictions that prevent it from operating around the clock.

Because it's an aggressive monopoly from which price controls have been removed, it's also the most expensive airport in the country for airlines and their passengers.

If for no other reason than to provide competition, the federal and state governments have finally resolved that another one is needed after much flip-flopping over the past two decades.

But in a democracy like Australia's, such big projects proceed at the speed of treacle if they go ahead at all. Another such contest between economic forces and "NIMBism" – the not-in-my-backyard syndrome – is upon us as a federal-state taskforce prepares to decide where we should put Sydney's new airport.

The taskforce is expected to make its recommendation by mid-year but that moment, on past performance, will simply fire the starting gun on a process of street demonstrations, court cases and some truly bizarre politics that will take years.

The question everyone wants answered is where the new airport would be: somewhere that would appeal to travellers and airlines or out in the boondocks. The three most logical candidates are:

1. Badgery's Creek, 35 kilometres west of Liverpool, a site originally set aside for an airport about 20 years ago. The federal transport minister, Anthony Albanese, ruled this option out in 2009, but there's now a suggestion it may be back on the table.

2. Holdsworthy army base in the south.

3. Richmond air force base, 60 kilometres north-west of Sydney – the "do nothing" option as it already has military flights.

All three potentially have good transport connections, but would require a level of competence in delivering projects not previously displayed by New South Wales state governments of both persuasions.

I'm tempted to go along with the cynics in believing that the NIMBies will prevent a new airport ever being built in Sydney.

But I have enough faith in ordinary people that, if it's explained to them that Sydney will become an economic backwater without proper transport infrastructure – not to mention an expensive destination with expensive air fares – they will support a second airport and it can be built with minimal delay.

Do you agree with me that a new Sydney airport is doable? Or is the solution fast trains to remote airports in Canberra and Newcastle? Is noise still a major issue when new-generation planes are far quieter than in the 1990s, when we last had noise demonstrations?

 

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