Could Sydney Airport become a stranded asset?
Michael Brown | 29 August 2017
Ridiculous! Sydney Airport at Mascot is Australia’s busiest! After all, it contributes directly and indirectly six per cent of NSW’s economic activity and almost 300,000 jobs. Its growth is currently very strong.
Potential “stranded asset” is a very big call so how might it possibly come about? Let’s explore!
Sydney Airport Corporation, the current operators of Sydney Airport, has declined to exercise its option to build and operate Sydney’s second airport at Badgerys Creek. Instead, the federal government allocated some $5 billion in the last budget to build the first stage of the new facility, allowing for future expansion as use increases.
Sydney needs a second airport because the growth at Mascot is about to reach some absolute limits. Aircraft capacity is constrained by legislated caps on the number of “slots”, the maximum number of apron movements per hour, and by its curfew, which is needed to preserve a semblance of residential amenity for nearby suburbs. Mascot is likely to fill all the available slots within a decade.
Not only does the curfew affect overall capacity, it also limits scheduling of flights. International carriers have to delay departure schedules in order to arrive in Australia’s premier airport outside curfew limits.
Compounding aerial congestion, ground level congestion to Sydney’s Mascot airport is set to negate its physical proximity to Central Sydney. The solution recommended is greater use of the existing rail service. Certainly, reliance on road networks to link Mascot to the growing western Sydney currently looks unwise, with the eventual delivery of WestConnex links reportedly delayed until the early-mid 2020s.
Current passenger demand for air travel locally is skewed towards the eastern suburbs of Sydney, as depicted in the image below, taken from a joint NSW and Australian government study of aviation capacity in the Sydney region.
This means that ongoing growth of air travel demand is likely to come from the east, rather than be confined to Sydney’s west. Hence, if the purpose of Badgerys Creek is to mop-up extra demand then most passengers will still need to travel right across Sydney.
The Badgerys Creek facility will be some 50 kilometres from Sydney’s CBD yet is intended to complement the capacity of the Mascot terminal, which is about eight kilometres distant. If it is to fulfil this goal, travel times to Badgerys Creek should be similar to the half-hour of Mascot’s. Road networks cannot economically achieve the necessary 100 kilometre-an-hour average speeds but rail easily can.
Clearly, serving Badgerys Creek by adding to existing rail and road networks would merely repeat the congestion mistakes that now hobble Sydney’s Mascot airport. It would be as absurd as linking Osaka and Kansai Airport – some 50 kilometres distant on an island in Osaka Bay – with ferries rather than the express train service that operated from the moment that airport opened.
The overall cost of a dedicated new 50-kilometre line between Badgerys Creek and Central Station, stopping only at Parramatta, would likely be less than $10 billion, based on the costs recently reported for contracts awarded to other rail tunnel projects. This is about half the reported cost of the proposed F6 extension between Wollongong and Sydney, yet in contrast to local road projects, improved international airport access would also deliver a measurable national productivity dividend.
Fortunately, rail options are currently being explored. In late 2016, the NSW and Australian governments sought public responses to a number of alternatives, including one, called Direct Rail Express. The dashed green and red lines overlaid on the image above depict an approximate alignment.
Furthermore, one half of this corridor is reported as currently under investigation by the NSW government for a metro rail link between central Sydney and Parramatta. Corresponding to the dashed red line and called the Express Option, it would yield fast trip times of 15 minutes but with limited stops between the two. The remaining dashed green line is a comparatively unchallenging corridor, which if it extended the express service, could conceivably deliver on overall 30-minute journey.
If Badgerys Creek airport is to avoid the fate of Avalon in Victoria – and the added burden to taxpayers of funding a $5 billion facility doomed to slow growth – then construction of a fast express service can reasonably be assumed.
But how might all this affect growth and investment in Sydney’s Mascot airport?
Bloomberg has reported that the opening of a new airport near Beijing has energised competing Chinese carriers to grow their local and international markets by dominating the new facility.
Could a similar dynamic affect the operation of a future Badgerys Creek airport?
A city-edge airport served by a high-speed express service to key urban centres would be functionally equivalent to Mascot’s facility, particularly those travelling for business in those centres.
Rail is proving to be an increasingly popular means of airport access. The Mascot facility is experiencing growth in rail usage, despite shortcomings of variable quality rolling stock and occasional overcrowding.
But a brand new airport unencumbered by a curfew and with a dedicated high-speed rail access to Parramatta, Sydney Olympic Park, White Bay and Central Sydney could well be more attractive to both travellers and airlines seeking to expand their market share. For airlines it would represent a first-in-best-dressed opportunity similar to that reported by Bloomberg, particularly if the airline could dominate the entire facility.
In short, the new facility could provide an aviation market-differentiation opportunity at Australia’s premier entrepôt.
For example, a significant international airline might decide that a well-serviced Badgerys Creek could warrant transfer of its entire international services, domestic transfers, alliance partners, combined airfreight businesses, and maintenance operations from the Mascot facility. This potential could also motivate such an airline to influence the design of the facility to suit its detailed requirements from the outset.
Though that airline might dominate the facility for a period, increased aviation activity would in turn attract other airlines seeking curfew-free access to Australia’s premier travel market and thereby likely prompt expansion of Badgerys Creek earlier than the 25 years currently proposed. This would be good for taxpayers, who would experience an earlier return on the capital invested in building the new airport.
Clearly, transfer of aviation activity to Badgerys Creek would release many “slots” at Mascot, thereby alleviating current aviation congestion. However, ongoing ground level congestion would persist and possibly worsen through growth of non-aviation activities, thereby diminishing the attraction of Mascot. This ground level congestion might be addressed by further investment in road and rail infrastructure, but why would – or should – the state invest in these improvements having just invested in Badgerys Creek?
The net effect of a bright shiny new Badgerys Creek airport – without a curfew and with good ground level links to Sydney’s emerging polycentric business and tourism locations – could thereby render Mascot Sydney’s second-order facility, despite proximity to Central Sydney.
Are these the kind of conditions likely to attract ongoing investment in Mascot’s long-term aviation future?
All is not gloomy for Mascot, however. As illustrated in the title image, 907 hectares of land with 10 kilometres of waterfrontage, some eight kilometres from Central Sydney – already serviced by two rail stations – will likely attract other redevelopment pressures!
Mike Brown has worked in NSW local and state government in planning, urban design and strategic roles for 15 years. He recently completed a Masters of Urban Policy and Strategy at the University of NSW.