THE side of the approach road to Melbourne Airport has been landscaped and fenced off with a rope festooned with little yellow flags to prevent people parking. It is unlikely this is solely about beauty or road safety. It also happens to protect one of the airport's most reliable revenue streams.
In the past financial year Melbourne Airport earned 21 per cent of its income or about $90 million from its car parks, almost double the revenue percentage of any other airport in Australia. Sydney by comparison earns 7 per cent.
According to a report by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission on Australia's airports that was released last week , Melbourne Airport makes about 75 per cent or $67 million profit on parking, raising suggestions it might be price gouging.
This is where attempts to stop people parking on the road verge comes in. In these tougher times people driving to the airport to collect passengers have taken to parking on the approach roadside, waiting for a mobile phone call to dash to the arrivals hall.
Although such parking is illegal (and there are signs warning of this), last week plenty were still willing to risk it.
Short-term parking fees are the reason. Now at $12 an hour and $18 for two hours, they have risen 50 per cent in the past financial year.
While the report found a high level of public satisfaction with parking services at the airport, people The Age spoke to last week had a high level of dissatisfaction with the prices. Most described them as a "rip off"' or "over the top".
Craig Scott of Boort used the word "criminal", adding: "What else can you do? They've got you by the balls." The ACCC put it less colourfully, describing parking as "monopoly pricing".
While a rail line that now links Sydney and Brisbane airports to their cities has been mooted for Melbourne since the airport was opened in 1970, the State Government has effectively shelved such a scheme despite being committed to it in opposition.
Stephen Moynihan, spokesman for Transport Minister Lynne Kosky, said the Government had not abandoned the link, but because there were so many other competing transport needs, it was a low priority. "Besides, there doesn't appear to be much demand for it," he said.
The taxi industry hopes that is true. Even though drivers might wait in a queue there for three hours, Carlos, who has driven cabs 20 years, says airport fares are the only worthwhile job in town.
"A train line would put 3000 people out of work immediately," he said.
Although the airport offers long-term parking for as little as $69 a week at its shuttle-bus-connected long-term park, its main parking competition are the off-site operators around Gladstone Park.
But the airport even gets a cut of this, charging $3 every time one of their shuttle buses makes a set-down or pick-up. The ACCC report commented that airports often made life difficult for these businesses, providing minimal bus parking often in awkward places.
Some of these companies, which run four shuttles continuously, are understood to pay Melbourne Airport $100,000 a year.
Even at this price, the 12 off-site parking businesses have just two parking spots for their buses, and at the Qantas domestic terminal, the spot is 100 metres from the pedestrian crossing.
None of the off-site operators would comment on Melbourne Airport but Andrew Shanahan, who runs Andrew's Parking and also has an operation in Brisbane, had this to say: "Up there (in Brisbane), they take the view that even though we compete with their parking we are part of the scenery. They want to make the customer's experience of using the airport as positive as possible."
Melbourne Airport was privatised in 1997 and is owned by Australia Pacific Airports Corporation, a partnership of AMP, Westpac Bank through Hastings Funds Management and Deutche Asset Management.
Its management declined to respond to the the ACCC claims or to a list of questions from The Age, instead saying: "The annual monitoring report for 2007-08 released by the ACCC shows Melbourne Airport is Australia's most efficient, with the lowest aeronautical operating expenses per passenger in the country."