Forecasting growth at Badgerys Creek, the airport that everybody needs and (almost) nobody wants

    Sydney’s second airport is notable for being probably the only topic on which there has been multi-party agreement for nearly five decades – that is, consistently to do nothing.

    And, despite actually beginning symbolic construction in 1992 (the first sod was turned by the Minister in Jun-1992), a further 25 years of political obfuscation and prevarication has now led to the likelihood of yet another 10 years’ wait.

    For what? The pathetic 3 million passenger operation being discussed?

    Not only that, Sydney’s congested main airport is ringed around with constraints that serve no more useful purpose than to avoid upsetting tiny minorities who might sway key votes.

    But the opportunity now exists to get real and start acting in the public interest.

    After all even Brisbane has two international airports – with its second already running at 6 million passengers a year.

    While government after government has looked the other way and stacked the ceiling high with consultant reports that all led to the same inescapable conclusion, tens of thousands of jobs have been lost and a whole region has suffered.

    It’s not just western Sydney that has lost out. As the Federal government’s Joint Study concluded a “mere” five years ago, “….adoption of a long-term strategic aviation plan for increasing the capacity of the Sydney region’s airports is now critical for Sydney, New South Wales and Australia. ”  Sydney KSA is a vital part of the national airline and travel system.
    The fact is it has been “critical” for over 20 years and its absence has cost more than jobs; it has cost the opportunity to transform western Sydney and beyond.

    And, amidst all this wheel spinning, there is harmony in the lack of genuine enthusiasm from any of the key aviation and political interests. The space is rife with vested interests whose equilibrium can be disturbed.

    As a result of Badgerys’ long absence from the market statistical forecasting of its likely size is near impossible – other than that it should be extensive. How long is a piece of string?

    There are so many factors that will influence the growth prospects of the airport that almost any forecast can be achievable. One thing is clear: an airport which initially provides for only 3-4 million passengers per year would be a sad joke.
    (Note: Passenger movements are critical also to freight aspirations – 90% of freight at Sydney KSA is carried on passenger aircraft).

    First of all the issue is complicated because the government’s privatisation advisors in 2001 pushed for the highest price (and for their bigger success fees) for KSA; this could only be obtained by giving the purchasers a first right of refusal to own and operate any second site within 100km.

    If the new airport is under separate ownership, the growth will be much faster. London’s Gatwick Airport is a prime example of that, after being divested from the joint Heathrow ownership.

    But much greater influences will be:

    ·      the nature of surface access provided to the new airport. For example, train access – ideally a 2-3 stop fast train from Sydney – will massively influence the uptake. Anything less, after so many decades of political self-interest winning over the public interest would be a shameless dereliction of responsibility. But that is just one part of a much needed comprehensive surface transport connection strategy;

    ·      the size of the airport build – build small, you’ll get small;

    ·      effective marketing of the new airport, ideally with an “open skies” regulatory access regime;

    ·      the rapid growth of international airlines and new aircraft types in Asia Pacific, transforming the nature of air services (today, almost one in five international seats are on LCCs that didn’t exist 15 years ago);

    ·      the rapid ascendance of China as an origin market and opening up of new routes; and

    ·      the high likelihood that the new airport would encourage new domestic airline entry as well.
    In short, the answer to how much traffic will a Badgerys Creek airport deliver is entirely in the hands of our political leaders. On past experience, that is not a happy prospect.

    The opportunity for remarkable change exists. The Federal and State governments need to come together to make an investment that will transform Australia’s aviation and business system – with the prospect in future of selling down the airport for a substantial profit. What a great win-win deal.

    History suggests however that we could still be talking about it 10 years from now.

    (This is a summary of a presentation by CAPA Chairman Peter Harbison to the “Western Sydney Aerotropolis” event in Sydney on 23-Feb-2017)