Everyone likes new airports – preferably in other countries. We are familiar with railway corridors and cuttings, preferably not too close, and welcome new stations, but a new airport invites controversy, debate and then, more often than not, political inaction.
Witness the endless debate about airport capacity in England’s South East, including for a third runway at Heathrow versus a new hub in the Thames estuary. There is no shortage of uninformed commentators – one well known public personality stated on the BBC ‘we don’t need a single mega airport – just have the flights to and from the East at one airport and those to and from the West at another’ – so demonstrating a common failure in understanding how an international hub airport operates and its importance to the UK economy. No such faintheartedness from the Middle East and Asia where state of the art international hub airports continue to thrive.
To be fair, Sydney’s Airport is unlikely to achieve an International Hub status due to our geographical location, although it is an increasingly important business and tourist destination with passenger numbers forecasted to increase from currently about 40 million passengers a year to 74 million passengers a year by 2033. Nevertheless, there are sufficient transfer passengers (the core of an international hub) at the current airport to warrant a significant operational change proposed in Sydney Airport’s 2033 Master Plan prepared by Sydney Airport Corporation Limited (SACL) who are the owners of Sydney Airport.
In this Master Plan, all three terminals will expand and accommodate both international and domestic passengers, thus minimising the current practice of bussing transfer passengers between International T1 and the Domestic T2/3 complex. However, like Heathrow and despite the concerted attempts to make the most of the existing facilities and expand within constraints, the solutions proposed in the SACL 2033 Master Plan are just that: Playing the hand that’s been dealt as skilfully as possible – but is it the best hand?
The recent ‘secret proposal’ by a contractor for a new airport at Badgerys Creek published in the Daily Telegraph April 15th 2015 opens a new deck of cards. The proposal is made in 2 Stages. Phase 1 provides for 10 million international and domestic passengers a year with a single runway, although no opening date is offered. Stage 2 accommodates 80 million international and domestic passengers per year with two runways.
Stage 2 plans revealed by The Daily Telegraph
The Stage 1 proposal is compatible with reports that this new airport is primarily intended for cargo and budget airlines, but the Stage 2 proposal is in a different league. The layout shows a midfield terminal between two runways compatible with current best practice. Unlike other midfield terminal layouts, for example Hong Kong with a single ‘front door’, the Terminal has a ‘U’ configuration including two Domestic and one International Departure Halls, but with connected Concourses allowing flexibility. It is too early to evaluate the terminal layout and fully understand the assumptions it is based on, and there is little indication of the architectural quality intended for the scheme, but significantly, it would be an opportunity to provide an airport with the capacity, efficiency and architectural merit commensurate with Sydney’s international profile. Upgraded road and direct rail links are also part of the proposal and are vital to support the feasibility of a major facility at this location.
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Some observations: At 80 million passengers a year, serious consideration should be given to including a third runway into the Master Plan. This, together with the impression that the Master Plan published in the press looks congested with no room for any further expansion for the terminal and other support facilities beyond 2050, raises some questions. Sydney Airport’s 2033 forecast of 73 million passengers and the Western Sydney Airport 2050 proposal for 80 million passengers doesn’t add up (well, they do but to a figure beyond what could be supported, ie over capacity).
So one implication could be that the Western Sydney Airport could be a single state of the art facility for Sydney covering all market sectors, and over time, the current Sydney Airport could be decommissioned and provide potential redevelopment opportunities for a site that will become increasingly valuable and increasingly urban due to Sydney’s forecasted expansion.
But this implication or even recognition of potential capacity at the Western Sydney Airport does not form part of the SACL 2033 Master Plan for Sydney Airport, although it should be noted that SACL has been granted the first right of refusal to develop the site at Badgerys Creek. Contractors and Consultants (this one included) like large new projects, but with these potentially conflicting visions for the future of airport development for Sydney, an arbiter who represents all stakeholders is required. The Federal Government supports the development of an airport at Badgerys Creek and funds have been committed to the development of surrounding infrastructure to support an initial phase of development for the site, but it is unclear what the long term strategic view is.
The debate about a second airport is 50 years old and originally was in the context of a third runway option for Sydney’s existing Airport. Following the construction of the third runway, the debate moved to the scope of a second airport at Badgerys Creek, but there is no official context in which to place a discussion about a new, single ‘all under one roof’ airport for Sydney. The Federal Aviation Company, which was under the Federal Government, was privatised and all policy is currently based on a two airport scenario. There needs to be an official and independent Master Plan to coordinate a strategy for the entire region based on overall passenger forecasts and market requirements in the context of Sydney’s long term Urban Development Plan. There are several scenarios that could be considered including running two sizeable facilities in parallel, or the long term development of Western Sydney Airport as Sydney’s only airport similar to the ‘secret’ proposals recently published.
Whichever option is promoted, it should be a matter of public policy based on an independent review and overall strategic Master Plan.