INTERNATIONAL flights could soon be operating out of Avalon Airport after the federal government yesterday announced it had amended the airport's lease from domestic-only to international status.
The amendment means Avalon will become the state's second international airport. It also enables airport operator Linfox to build a new terminal of up to 10,000 square metres and up to a cost of $15 million without the need for further planning approval.
Avalon's chief executive Justin Giddings said the announcement opened the way for it to strike a deal with international airlines and was critical to the airport's growth. He said overseas flights could be operating from as early as next year.
''The next step in the process is for Avalon to secure an international airline, and we can now make that approach in full confidence,'' he said.
Mr Giddings said the airport had been in talks with several airlines. ''Up until now, they [the airlines] have really been waiting for our Commonwealth consent, and now that we've effectively got that, it should change the tone of our discussions. I imagine that if we can do a deal tomorrow we could be flying in six months. But really, it's a matter of the airlines. It could take a year or two.''
The Baillieu government welcomed the move and called on the federal government to provide funding for its planned rail link to the airport, which is 55 kilometres from central Melbourne and 20 kilometres from Geelong.
In 2010, Ted Baillieu made an election promise to build a $250 million rail link to Avalon Airport in his first term as Premier. The Coalition has since committed $50 million to the project and says the rest will have to come from the federal government and airport owner Lindsay Fox.
The government has also committed $3 million to develop a fuel line to pipe aviation fuel from Shell Geelong directly to the airport.
Yesterday, Aviation Minister, Gordon Rich-Phillips said: ''We're happy the Commonwealth has finally agreed to make Avalon an international airport and we hope that it is a sign of its commitment to funding the infrastructure required to assist with the airport's growth. The Coalition government is pushing ahead with the planning necessary to proceed with the project [the rail link] should Commonwealth funding become available.''
In July, The Age reported federal advisory agency Infrastructure Australia had rejected Victoria's request to finance a study into the rail link. At the time, Infrastructure Australia board member Professor Peter Newman said of the project: ''It doesn't seem to have a strategic value at all … To link that airport before you've done the major airport, come on, what's the point of that? Avalon is an example of politics overriding rational economic decision-making.''
Avalon currently operates just 25 weekly Jetstar services, following the loss of Tiger Airways last year and Sharp Airlines, which ceased operating flights from the airport to Portland, earlier this year. An average of 1500 passengers pass through the airport each day compared with almost 30 million passengers a year at Tullamarine.
Mr Giddings said yesterday's announcement further justified the need for a rail service but said he had put forward cheaper alternatives to a heavy rail link. ''I think this announcement just justifies it [a rail link] a little bit more … My preference would be to see a new station between Lara and Little River, and then a light rail would be able to feed from that station to Avalon.''
He said a light rail would would reduce the cost of the project by ''hundreds of millions of dollars''.
Qantas said yesterday it and Jetstar had no immediate plans to operate international flights from Avalon.