Will a second airport solve Sydney's problems?

As a measure of what a fractious issue it has been for much of the past 65 years, there’s now intense focus on the timing alone of the go-ahead for Sydney’s second airport.

When a Sydney newspaper last week apparently jumped the gun in announcing that Badgery’s Creek would get the green light from federal cabinet in the next few days, the anticipation had to be hosed down in Canberra.

"A decision must be made and it will be made by this government early in our first term but I do have to warn you that it's not imminent," Prime Minister Tony Abbott told the press pack last week.

The decision is keenly anticipated because the Sydney airport monopoly, privatised in 2002 by the Howard Government, is the congested centrepiece of the national air transport grid that has been responsible for both delays and high prices for consumers over the past two decades.

What’s now beyond doubt is that 2014 will be the year that the bullet is bitten. And, unlike the political divisions about most other issues, it will have the support of both sides of politics, even if the New South Wales government has to be dragged to the table after trying to duck the issue at the last state election.

Even though community feeling about the issue has changed significantly, there’s still the possibility that air travellers themselves could again become the target of protests – as they were in the 1990s over Sydney airport noise – when the go-ahead for Badgery’s Creek airport in western Sydney is announced.

Though Labor’s former transport minister Anthony Albanese has been a long-term supporter of Badgery’s Creek, western Sydney Labor MP Ed Husic is one of the highest-profile community leaders campaigning against the new airport.

He says his constituents will be plagued by “ceaseless” aircraft noise becausethe only way to lure big airlines from Sydney airport, he says, is to allow the second to operate without a curfew.

That is indeed an attraction for airlines, who detest the artificial restraints at Sydney airport, including the hourly cap on takeoffs and landings and the 11pm-to-6am curfew, with fines for transgressors and the need for costly flight diversions.

Both the main airline groups are indicating their enthusiasm to move part of their operations to western Sydney because the main airport is bursting at the seams, with takeoff and landing slots already taken in the morning and evening peak periods.

Being forced to operate outside the peak periods makes it much harder for airlines to be profitable because it is not attractive to the business market.

For international airlines like Qatar Airways of the Middle East, the ability to serve Sydney with a late-evening turnaround as it does in Melbourne could prove the difference long term between whether it serves the New South Wales capital or not.

There has also been speculation that tickets to and from the western Sydney airport could actually be cheaper if airlines aren’t forced to pay the sky-high charges they’re shelling out at Mascot.

But that, too, depends on who ends up owning Badgery’s Creek airport.

Sydney Airport Corporation Limited (SACL) had written into its original contract to buy Sydney airport from the commonwealth a first right of refusal on the management of any second airport in the Sydney basin.

That means the Sydney airport monopoly, which has attracted scathing criticism from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, could end up owning Badgery’s Creek and the same high prices could end up severely reducing its appeal – to the airlines at least.

Even if air travellers are again the meat in the sandwich, it would appear that the local community now backs the new airport, with a Galaxy poll of 3800 people in western Sydney last year finding 65 per cent support for Badgery’s Creek, while the local council, Liverpool, has switched its opposition to support for the project after undertaking community polling.

Nevertheless, after half a century of hand-wringing and more than 50 separate inquiries on the subject, it’s a historic year for air travel with a decision on Sydney’s second airport at hand. What happens after the announcement is made is less predictable, but at least the political buck-passing appears to be over.

Does it make any difference to you which airport you use when you fly in and out of Sydney? If you’re a Sydney resident, has your opinion changed?