Four out of every 10 planes in Australia fly through Sydney Airport.
All eyes have been on Qantas this past week but the federal government's focus on the state of Australia's largest airline has masked greater opportunities to increase productivity in Australian aviation.
The government recently approved Sydney Airport's latest 20-year master plan and confirmed an announcement would be made this year on a second airport for Sydney, with Badgerys Creek the preferred option. Yet, before the first sod is turned at Badgerys Creek, there are major productivity gains ripe for the picking at Sydney Airport. It is relatively low-hanging fruit for Tony Abbott, who wants to be known as ''an infrastructure prime minister''.
Sydney Airport is a transport and economic behemoth. It is the most important infrastructure asset in Australia, driving a direct and indirect economic contribution of almost $28 billion or about 6 per cent of the NSW economy and 2 per cent of the Australian economy. It generates about 160,000 direct jobs and another 120,000-plus indirectly. It moves 40 million passengers a year and hosts the world's second-busiest route (Sydney-Melbourne, 956 movements a week) and the world's seventh-busiest route (Sydney-Brisbane, 588 movements a week).
Canberra Airport chief executive Stephen Byron. Photo: Supplied
The on-time operation of Sydney Airport is critical to the productivity of the Australian economy.
Yet, astoundingly in the 21st century, it has its wings clipped by outmoded operational strictures that make it one of the most constrained airports in the world. It is these constraints that cause most of the delays at Sydney Airport and most certainly prevent on-time operations recovering post bad weather disruptions. With four out of every 10 planes in Australia flying through Sydney at least once each day, delays at Sydney Airport mean delays for air travellers right around the country.
Without removing the curfew, which effectively closes the airport between 11pm and 6am every night, plenty can be done right now to remove the disruptive constraints on Sydney's existing aviation infrastructure, especially since a fully functional Badgerys Creek airport is decades away.
Here is a three-point action plan to reduce delays, increase productivity, create jobs and maximise Australia's greatest existing infrastructure asset.
The first, and most important, step is to increase the number of movements per hour.
Sydney Airport is restricted to a maximum of 80 aircraft an hour between 6am and 11pm. The number is arbitrary, originally established by politicians and does not reflect the true capacity of the airport, which is at least 90 movements per hour.
Moreover, this maximum limit is assessed for compliance every 15 minutes - that is, four times every hour - which is excessive and means that rarely do the actual movements ever reach 80: more like 75 to 76 per hour at most.
So let's act now. Increase the slots to 90 per hour and add the flexibility of a rolling average over three hours instead of 60 minutes, so the maximum can genuinely be utilised during the peak period. There's a national productivity increase of more than 10 per cent straight up, which will flow into economic growth, less delays for everyone and more jobs.
Certainly, those extra 10 slots can be allocated only for the quieter, new-generation jets. Aircraft have become significantly quieter yet, to date, there has been no adaptation of the constraints on Sydney Airport to reflect this substantial improvement.
Second, it is vital to synchronise regulations governing airport activity with what is permitted under the act.
The Sydney Airport Curfew Act allows for 35 aircraft per week to land (generally over the water) in the ''shoulder period'' for an hour before 6am. Yet, absurdly, the regulations governing the activity restrict these movements to 24 per week. Similarly, in the one hour after 11pm, the act allows 14 aircraft per week to land but the regulations allow none. Let's make the regulations consistent with the act, allow 35 per week in the morning and 14 per week in the evening
(and again restrict them to the quieter, new-generation jets) and there's another productivity increase of almost 50 per cent.
Finally, it is essential to provide flexibility in the event of weather disruptions. This would allow Sydney Airport to ''catch up'' when operations are shut down by Mother Nature. It might be a major bushfire emergency, flooding in Brisbane or a series of freak thunderstorms, but the result is a tsunami of lost productivity, reputational damage and disrupted lives, which sweeps the nation when Sydney is weather affected and is unable to catch up because of the curfew shutting everything down at 11pm.
Australia's aviation network is so dependent on Sydney as its major hub that any disruption there is amplified around the nation. Travellers camp on the airport floor, unable to find a spare hotel room, unable to reach their destinations, missing funerals of loved ones or critical business meetings. The airlines, with planes stranded at the wrong places across the country, take two to three days to recover the schedule so the delays continue. And the impact is often greatest on regional Australia, where alternate flights are limited.
A simple solution in these extreme situations is to allow all flight operations to continue at the end of the day for one additional hour until midnight. This is relatively minimal disruption for the citizens of Sydney so long as it is restricted to major weather emergencies or situations where Sydney Airport is closed for a minimum of 60 minutes - yet it will remove a massive level of disruption and chaos for tens of thousands of travellers.
Building Badgerys Creek is critical - it has always been the best site on offer. It will relieve congestion at Sydney Airport and generate thousands of jobs. But the fact is Sydney Airport is more important and always will be. It already delivers many more jobs than Badgerys ever will. It is just commonsense to maximise the asset.
It's not every day you can achieve an instant productivity increase of 10 per cent on an asset that drives more than 2 per cent of a nation's gross domestic product. It will also help Qantas and Virgin Australia reduce their massive fuel and disruption costs incurred through delays at Sydney Airport.
Stephen Byron is the managing director of Canberra Airport.