The Oldest New Airport In The World


A White Paper released in December by Federal Transport Minister, Anthony Albanese, has recommended killing off one of the biggest infrastructure projects ever contemplated in Australia: the building of a second airport for Sydney.

It is not a new project as there has been talk about Sydney getting a second airport since the 1940s — there have been enough words published on this subject to fill a library — but despite the countless announcements about a new site having been chosen, nothing has happened other than more words being written.

As well as being the most written about, the existing Sydney Airport is also Australia’s largest in volume of passengers and the smallest in land area of all our other capital cities. That is the problem and that is why a second airport is essential before Sydney withers as a centre for commerce.

Almost as soon as it was first officially used as an airport the site has been considered too small. It has constantly been added to in an effort to get by, while politicians dither about doing the obvious — building a new one.

Originally the land on which the airport is built was a mixture of cow pastures, tidal swamps and sand hills. Back in the late 1800s it was used for illegal boxing matches and dog fights. It did not become an airport until 1920 when approval was given — conditional on the surface being smooth enough to allow a Model-T Ford to be driven at 20 miles per hour with the driver still comfortably seated. The first gravel runways were not built until 1930. To accommodate this expansion some small streams had to be filled in and the mouth of the Cooks River relocated.

The airport was renamed Kingsford Smith in 1936 after the pioneering aviator. However his popularity as an Australian hero was not transferred to the airport.

With the constant growth in the popularity and affordability of air travel, facilities at Sydney Airport have always been strained. Since the 1940s, Federal and State governments have been grappling with the need to build a second airport in Sydney.

In 1963 the original north/south runway was extended into Botany Bay to cater for new, bigger jet aircraft and the jet curfew introduced between 11pm and 6am. The need for a new international terminal became apparent and work commenced in late 1966. Queen Elizabeth II officially opened it in 1970.

Regardless of all the extensions the airport was not big enough and in 1973 the minister for civil aviation in the Whitlam Labor government, Charlie Jones, announced, "Galston has been chosen by the Australian Government to meet Sydney’s airport needs for the 1980s". Surprise, surprise: nothing happened except a lot of words were written before the cancellation of the location was announced.

In 1986, when Paul Keating was treasurer in the Hawke Labor government, civil aviation minister Peter Morris announced, "Badgerys Creek has been selected as the site for the second Sydney airport." Morris claimed the purchase of a 1700-hectare site in western Sydney ended "… 30 years of indecisiveness. Now uncertainty and anxiety facing many communities around Sydney will vanish."

It was a popular choice as it was a similar distance from the population and geographical centre of Sydney (Parramatta), as is Kingsford Smith airport, with a small fraction of people living under the flight path. It was estimated that within 20 years just over 18,000 people would be living within 10 kilometres of the proposed site at Badgerys Creek while almost 700,000 would be living the same distance from Sydney Airport.

However, despite a vast number of favourable words being written on the subject, the Hawke government backtracked in 1994 and instead of building a new airport, a second runway (known as the third) was added to the existing airport. The bad publicity did not seem to bother Hawke, nor did it seem to bother prime minister Paul Keating when he opened it, dubbing it the runway "the nation had to have".

Few residents of Sydney living under the new flight paths agreed with him. The new runway doubled air traffic north and south of the airport and aircraft passed over the inner-city suburbs of Drummoyne, Leichhardt, Petersham, Annandale, Stanmore, Marrickville, St Peters and Sydenham as often as every 90 seconds. Real estate prices crashed and more words were written.

The new runway "the nation had to have" did not help as costly air traffic delays continued. Aircraft were still required to circle Sydney skies or wait on runways until other aircraft had completed landings or take-offs. It soon became apparent the new runway brought a decrease in the tolerance to increased aircraft noise, not to mention a growing concern about the environment and the impact the additional air traffic was having on the levels of pollution affecting some of the most densely populated Sydney communities.

In 1995, a year before Keating lost office, his government budgeted $762 million to build the Badgerys Creek airport. In a scramble to distance itself from the Keating government, the Howard Liberal government cancelled construction in 1997. In 2003, Labor leader Simon Crean reneged on the Labor promise to build the new airport.

The aviation White Paper released in December now recommends the selling of the Badgerys Creek land and the establishment of yet another taskforce to find another new site for a second Sydney airport by mid-2011. More words will be written and another election will be held before anyone will make a decision on that report.

Paul Keating has blasted the Rudd Government’s decision to scrap Badgerys Creek as the site as "a scandalous violation of responsible public policy". The Federal Government now plans to sell the land and have it developed as an economic driver and job creator for western Sydney.

It will be hard to find a better economic driver than a new airport.

Each year, Sydney Airport attracts around 29 million passengers, split between 10 million international and 19 million domestic. The airport is one of Australia’s most important pieces of infrastructure with a direct contribution of $8 billion in NSW Gross State Product. With flow-on impacts taken into account, the airport’s economic contribution increases to $16.5 billion.

Sydney Airport generates more than 75,000 jobs and about 131,000 jobs indirectly, making a total of around 206,000 jobs. This contributes around $7.4 billion to household incomes every year.

All this money flying around is equivalent to 6 per cent of the NSW economy, or 2 per cent of the Australian economy.

Sydney is Australia’s most densely populated city as well as being the most populous. The 2006 census stated there were 4,119,190 people living in the greater area of the city which was about one-fifth (19.38 per cent) of Australia’s total population. Sydney’s population is said to have increased to over 4,500,000 and to be still growing strongly.

It is obvious a new airport would employ thousands directly and would result in many businesses and industries wanting to be located near it. Its impact would be enormous, both economically and for the convenience of its residents. A new rail line in western Sydney would also bring jobs.

Keating says it is a disgrace that Badgerys Creek is not going ahead. There will be a large number of people unhappy about saying he is right. After decades of inquiries it is obvious there is no site as good as Badgerys Creek. Suggestions that Canberra, Newcastle or Goulburn could offer the answer are just plain silly. There is no other site that offers the convenience and practicality of Badgerys Creek.

The only certainty on this subject is that many more words will be written before Sydney gets a second airport.


Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.