The debate over whether Sydney needs a second airport has bubbled along since the 1980s, when land was earmarked at Badgerys Creek as a potential second site. Current NSW premier Barry O'Farrell reaffirmed on the weekend that he is opposed to an airport at that location, but the question of how long Australia's biggest city can operate with just one centrally-located airport remains open.
Picture by Amanda Slater
O'Farrell's argument is that introducing a second airport at Badgerys Creek would create an unacceptable airport noise problem for millions of western Sydney residents. The sprawling expansion of the city means that what was once a relatively under-populated area is now rather more occupied.
At the same time, increasing passenger numbers mean that Sydney Airport is eventually going to reach capacity. A recent government report suggests that not building a second airport will have a negative effect on the economy of $6 billion by 2035.
One way to solve that would be to allow more aircraft passenger movements, but that has noise implications in itself. And it's not just a question of letting planes land: an effective airport needs to be accessible, and Sydney's near-central location makes it vulnerable to traffic jams. In peak hour, taxi queues at the airport are already a cause of frequent complaint for travellers.
Right now, Melbourne is the only Australian city which has two major airports used by domestic travellers. With that said, Avalon isn't exactly a vibrant concern: it's used by just two airlines (Jetstar and Sharp) and has flights to only three destinations (Sydney, Brisbane and Portland).
(You could also make the case that the Gold Coast airport serves something of the same function for Queensland. While it's located a good two hours away from Brisbane airport, that kind of distance isn't uncommon with European airports, especially older military airfields repurposed for use by low-cost airlines. If the existing Brisbane-Gold Coast train line got connected to the Gold Coast terminal -- it already begins from Brisbane Airport -- it would be a much more viable alternative landing point.)
Perhaps we need to think about these problems from different angles. For instance, Sydney does have a good train service to the existing airport, but many Sydney residents don't use it because there's a hefty surcharge due to it having been constructed with private funds. Right now, if there's more than one of you going to the airport, it usually works out cheaper to get a taxi. If the surcharge was dropped and airport trains cost regular rates, it would be a lot more appealing to take the train. That's not going to solve every issue related to airport growth, but it's a measure that still might be worth considering while we squabble over whether a second airport is needed.
I don't imagine we're ever going to see Sydney emulating London, which has five major airports (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City). But if the current saga teaches us anything, it's that failing to recognise the need for future expansion can make problems much more difficult to solve in the future. If nothing else, maybe we can remember that when it comes to broadband.
Lifehacker Australia editor Angus Kidman is slightly embarrassed to realise that he still hasn't flown into Avalon airport. His Road Worrier column, looking at technology and organising tips for travellers, appears each week on Lifehacker.