Sydney Airport: who cares what travellers think?

As usual, travellers will be the last to be consulted – actually, they’re not being consulted at all – on one of Australia’s biggest travel issues: a second airport for Sydney.

The media and the blogosphere are in uproar over the future of air travel into and out of Australia’s biggest city as the political establishment ties itself in knots over the issue.

Plotting the future of air travel is one of the paradoxes of the modern, rich Western democracy: everyone wants to travel, many need to travel – for work and other reasons – and economies increasingly rely on the efficient transport of air freight.

But aircraft noise has become an explosive political issue, so much so that the new, notionally pro-business conservative government of New South Wales has staked its political future on a vow to block any new airport for the city, even though the existing airport is already close to capacity in the vital morning and evening peak periods.

Overlaid on top of that issue is a second one vitally affecting air travel consumers: Australia is the only country apart from Britain that has opted for the privatisation of its main publicly-owned airport monopolies, which have been able to head off any restraint on their fee-charging regimes.

While the squabble is most feverish in Sydney itself, tens of millions of travellers around Australia and the world are being affected by the continuing inaction on the issue, which has dragged on for around 50 years.

Because Sydney is more or less a flat plain surrounded by mountains, the options for a new airport site are limited. The Australian federal government bought a site that’s still reserved for an airport at Badgery’s Creek, about 40 kilometres west of Sydney, in the 1980s.

A federal-state taskforce has just confirmed that Badgery’s Creek is the best option. The federal Labor Party government agrees, but the NSW Liberal Party government, which is on the opposite side of the political divide, doesn’t want to know about it.

NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, who was elected in a landslide last year, went to that poll pledging to placate airport noise opponents and block a new airport.

(I suspect a similar landslide victory to the Liberals in the state of Queensland last month, in which broken Labor Party promises featured prominently, has made O’Farrell doubly determined not to change his mind, even though Canberra is pleading with him to put the national interest first.)

Needless to say, the current Sydney airport management is arguing that its goldmine business has plenty of unused capacity and that it can easily accommodate growth far into the future.

Which would be fine if its customers thought they were getting a good deal. But, in its regular monitoring reports, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has found that Sydney airport is not only the most expensive in Australia for its airline customers, but it is also rated the worst for service by travellers and airlines.

The argument about spare capacity is also spurious to a large extent. The morning and evening peak periods – the money-making prime time for airlines – are already virtually full. That means no new airline can schedule flights into Sydney in the peaks and airlines with existing take-off and landing slots can increase their capacity only by increasing the size of the planes they use.

This is already having some bizarre ramifications. To take advantage of incentives to operate outside of the congested peaks, the new daily service by Singapore Airlines subsidiary Scoot from June this year doesn’t leave Singapore until 2.10am to fit in with its Sydney landing slot at 11.40am. And the new AirAsia X service, which started on April 2, can’t leave Kuala Lumpur until 11.40pm to make its Sydney off-peak slot at 9.45am.

The flipside of that is that there are already pricing disincentives to land and take off in the peaks. The next logical step is the introduction of slot trading at Sydney airport similar to London Heathrow, where slot (takeoff and landing) pairs are sold by airlines to each other for as much as $30 million each.

The ultimate ramification is that, if you want to fly to Sydney at the most convenient time, you will have to pay a surcharge.

Such bizarre systems are possible only where effective monopolies exist and Sydney will remain one of them for as long as there is no second airport for the Sydney metropolitan area. An added only-in-Australia twist is that the current Sydney airport has first right of refusal on the management rights for any new airport, an almost unbelievable lapse of judgement by the Howard government, which negotiated that clause.

Contrast the case of Sydney with Melbourne and Brisbane, which have the cheapest and second-cheapest airline charges in Australia largely because of competition from Avalon and Gold Coast airports.

In the meantime, the O’Farrell government has put forward the suggestion that new Sydney air traffic could be diverted to Canberra airport, 240 kilometres away, and transferred to Sydney via a fast train system that has not yet even been proposed as a formal infrastructure program.

I’d bet travellers to Sydney from interstate and overseas would be falling over themselves to do the last 200 kilometres by train. Not.

What would you tell the politicians trying to make up their minds on this issue? If you’re watching this issue from the outside Sydney, what are your thoughts? If you’re travelling to Australia from overseas, do you automatically consider entering the country to Sydney or are Brisbane, Melbourne or other airports better alternatives?