The longer you leave an environmental problem, the harder it is to solve. Sydney Airport, with its noise, air pollution and crash risk, is an environmental problem left so long that only the difficult solution remains.
People living near the airport and under its flight paths are fed up with its ever increasing negative impact on their lives and are weary of the inability of successive governments to stop the situation getting worse, let alone find a solution.
A second airport is no solution. In fact, it would make things worse for people affected by Sydney Airport because, as the recent report of the Joint Study on Aviation Capacity in the Sydney Region says, it would be a "supplementary airport". Its role would be to allow Sydney Airport to operate at peak efficiency, and eventually at maximum capacity, creating more problems for residents, not less.
About 26 per cent of the air traffic at Sydney Airport consists of regional and "general aviation" flights by propeller aircraft and a few very small jets. These are the flights that would be sent to a second airport if it were built, freeing up capacity at Sydney Airport for more large jets, which are noisier, more polluting and more dangerous.
You might ask, "If the role of a second airport is to make the primary airport more efficient, why are the owners of Sydney Airport opposed to a second airport being built at Wilton?" Probably because their intention is to persuade a future government to allow Bankstown Airport to take that role, even though it is surrounded by residential areas. Putting a stop to that will be a battle one day. As will fighting attempts to increase Sydney Airport’s movement cap and reduce the curfew. A distant second airport won’t prevent these future battles.
Only one possible solution remains for Sydney Airport: to close it and build a replacement airport. It would need to be outside the Sydney Basin airshed and have high speed rail connections. The site should be determined through comprehensive scientific study and broad consultation. Its cost could be partly met by transforming the current airport site into a mixed residential and employment precinct.
Other cities have successfully relocated inner city airports away from densely populated areas — Oslo, Hong Kong, Athens, Bangkok. Sydney could do it too.
In the meantime, high speed rail links between Australia’s eastern cities would slow down the growth of air traffic in Sydney, especially as the cost of air travel and fuel rises.
The Sydney-Melbourne corridor, for example, is the second busiest air passenger route in the world and accounts for more than 20 per cent of air passenger movements at Sydney Airport. A train ride of just over three hours from the centre of Melbourne to the centre of Sydney would be very appealing to the majority of those travellers.
The proposed Wilton site is unsuitable for either a second or replacement airport. It was assessed in 1985 to an extent sufficient to rule it out. It is in Sydney’s drinking water catchment and near dams supplying the Illawarra’s drinking water.
It is inside the airshed of the Sydney Basin which means that fumes and particulates from aircraft and related road traffic would contribute to greater Sydney’s air pollution woes. Since the environmental impact statement was prepared in 1985 residential areas that would be affected by overflights have dramatically increased.
Inner-Sydney residents have been lied to for decades about so-called solutions to Sydney Airport. The prospect of a second airport at Badgerys Creek was held out as the saviour by Labor and Liberal politicians for many years. It allowed them to go to one election after another saying, "Relief is on the way, Badgerys Creek will come to the rescue". But the truth is it was only ever intended to be a second airport that would increase the capacity for more large jets at Sydney Airport. Wilton is now being proposed as the second airport for the same political reasons.
Easier solutions than replacing the airport have been ruled out by Labor and Liberal/National governments, exacerbating the problem through facilitating intensifications of the airport, the most dramatic being Labor’s third runway in 1994. Replacing Sydney Airport is a hard solution, but it is now the only solution.
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