More travellers take the secondary route

Avalon Airport: will it take off?
Avalon Airport: will it take off?

Secondary airports, which are all the rage in Europe and the US, are slowly catching on in Australia in spite of its comparatively tiny population.

Airports that are further from the city centres they serve work for airlines through lower charges for passenger gates and runway usage, which enable lower ticket prices for consumers, but also in lower retail prices for services such as car parking.

In Queensland, for example, international airline flights at Gold Coast have boomed, even though Brisbane airport is just 80 kilometres away. There are up to three daily services to Auckland, New Zealand, as well as frequent flights to Tokyo and Osaka, Japan, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Singapore and Christchurch, when it was just a small domestic airport a decade ago.

Without the tropical climate, the growth trajectory for Victoria’s Avalon airport, 55 kilometres from the Melbourne city centre and Tullamarine airport, isn’t as hyped, but, like the Gold Coast, it has gone out of its way to attract low-cost airlines and this month obtained long-delayed federal government approval for an international terminal.

Ultra-low-cost carrier Tiger Airways had a false start at Avalon up until last year when it was grounded for major safety breaches. However, Tiger has now had restrictions on its operating licence removed by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority.

Not coincidentally, the airline has been asking its customers to nominate destinations they would like to see the airline return to and Avalon is No.4, suggesting that it may again try flying from there to places such as Perth, Adelaide, Sydney and Gold Coast.

Meanwhile, Jetstar maintains four flights a day from Avalon to Sydney and a daily to Brisbane and it is rumoured that international freight operators are interested in using its new international processing capability. The Victorian government has also committed to build a rail connection via the nearby Geelong-Melbourne line, which will help neutralise the airport’s competitive disadvantage compared with Tullamarine.

And then there is the 40-year saga of Sydney’s second airport, which is a crude political soap opera in which activist residents put the frighteners on federal and state politicians, who then freeze out of fear.

The end result is that Sydney has one of the most expensive airport monopolies in Australia, while Avalon, Tullamarine, Brisbane and Gold Coast pitch for the economic growth that Sydney should have got, but didn’t because of high charges and lack of runway capacity.

A federal-state taskforce earlier this year recommended a site at Badgerys Creek, which was purchased by the federal government for an airport nearly three decades ago.

Federal transport minister Anthony Albanese is said to personally support that option, but is pushing for a site further away from the city at Wilton in the southern foothills to avoid a voter backlash.

The taskforce also said the re-activation of Richmond air force base, 60 kilometres west of Sydney, as a supplementary civil airport should be investigated, but that sounds to me like an excuse for another 20 years of inaction and more “studies”.

Richmond airport is already on a railway line, like Avalon, which, to an outsider, makes it appear as a monty to become a supplementary regional airport for the northwest of the Sydney basin.

But that ignores the disastrous incompetence of successive state governments of both persuasions when it comes to anything to do with public transport.

The current state government’s idea of a second Sydney airport is to build a fast train to Canberra 250 kilometres away, which anyone who knows anything about the air transport industry will tell you is comically inadequate.

Do you use Gold Coast airport to get cheap fares to Asia or NZ in preference to Brisbane? Are you a fan of Avalon with its cheaper parking and lack of congestion? Would you support using Richmond as a cheaper existing option before a new Sydney airport is built? Are there other Australian cities that need secondary airports?

This story More travellers take the secondary route first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.