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Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Legislation Committee
Department of Infrastructure and Transport

Department of Infrastructure and Transport


CHAIR: I welcome officers from Aviation and Airports.

Senator WILLIAMS: I have questions about Sydney aviation. Mr Mrdak, would you like the questions? They are all easy.

Mr Mrdak : If they are all easy, I will take the easy ones, Senator.

Senator WILLIAMS: I note from the portfolio budget statements that one of the department's priorities for 2012-13 is the implementation of the response to the joint study on aviation capacity for the Sydney region. Can you outline what actions you intend to take to achieve this objective?

Mr Mrdak : Certainly, Senator. Following the government's consideration of the joint study, the government announced essentially three courses of action that recognise the economic importance of Sydney aviation. Firstly, it is working with the New South Wales government to address some of the immediate priorities of road and rail access to Sydney (Kingsford Smith) Airport, which obviously has been identified as one of the major issues in the next decade in terms of capacity for growth. Secondly, there are measures to further protect existing aviation infrastructure. That includes a major decision last Friday by Australian transport ministers to develop some guidelines for the protection of aerodrome assets from inappropriate development around those airports. Thirdly, there are further investigations in relation to two particular pieces of work—the use of Richmond airbase for civilian traffic, and the potential at Wilton in the south-eastern area of Sydney for a possible site for a supplementary airport for the Sydney region. They are the main areas of work for this year that the department now has underway.

Senator WILLIAMS: That is basically what work has been undertaken until now?

Mr Mrdak : Based on the work that has been undertaken to now in the joint study. The department will now undertake further work in relation to those three areas.

Senator WILLIAMS: Has there been any work undertaken in relation to Williamtown and Badgerys Creek?

Mr Mrdak : The joint study looked at both of those locations quite extensively. In particular, the joint study's view was that Williamtown does need to provide additional capacity in the future for civil operations. Obviously the major consideration there is about RAAF's primary needs. It will remain RAAF's primary air fighter base for Australia. Obviously, the transition to a Joint Strike Fighter is based at Williamtown. So RAAF has distinct operational requirements at Williamtown. But certainly we identified that the growing area of the Central Coast and Hunter will need expanded aviation infrastructure over the coming decades. Secondly, Badgerys Creek was looked at extensively as part of the joint study report as well, given that it remains a Commonwealth site. It was looked at in terms of its potential for an aerodrome development.

Senator WILLIAMS: So the Commonwealth owned that land at Badgerys Creek. How much land is involved?

Mr Mrdak : It is about 1,900 hectares, Senator.

Senator WILLIAMS: It is a fair stretch.

Mr Mrdak : It is.

Senator WILLIAMS: It is nearly 4½ thousand acres. What is the expected cost of the feasibility study for the proposed Wilton site?

Mr Mrdak : We have not got a cost at this stage, Senator. We are in the market at the moment seeking tenders from parties who can undertake that work. That process is currently ongoing. I will just check with my colleague Mr Doherty.

Senator WILLIAMS: So are you calling tenders for that?

Mr Mrdak : We have gone to the market, yes, Senator. We do not have a firm cost.

Senator WILLIAMS: Is there a budgeted figure for it?

Mr Mrdak : Not at this stage, Senator. We have been asked to absorb that cost within the department's budget.

Senator WILLIAMS: And you can meet that without a problem?

Mr Mrdak : Well, I will wait to see the cost that comes in, Senator. I am not in a position to give you a guarantee on that at this stage. But we will absorb the cost within the existing budget for the department.

Senator WILLIAMS: Of course you do not know who will undertake that feasibility study because there has been no decision as yet?

Mr Mrdak : That is right.

Senator WILLIAMS: When do you think there will be a decision on who will actually get to undertake that feasibility study? Is it a matter of months?

Mr Mrdak : I think it is a matter of days and weeks, Senator. I will just check with my colleague.

Mr Doherty : Senator, there may be several contracts involved over a period of time. But we would expect that the first of those studies will be settled quite quickly.

Senator WILLIAMS: Have you got any time line for the completion of the feasibility study?

Mr Mrdak : We are aiming for completion—this is initial scoping work—by early next year.

Senator WILLIAMS: What action has been undertaken so far on the transport congestion issue associated with Sydney (Kingsford Smith) Airport?

Mr Mrdak : Following the analysis undertaken in the joint study report, the minister wrote to the New South Wales government asking that we continue joint work on that. I have a meeting early next week with senior executives in New South Wales from transport planning and other agencies to start a discussion of how we progress that. So we have certainly got to look very closely at particularly the rail link. That was identified as a major area for work in terms of making that a much more effective operation to serve the needs of the airport. So those discussions will go from next week with New South Wales.

Senator WILLIAMS: Has there been any consideration given to Botany Bay and the Caltex refinery area? When you fly over there, you can see a lot of empty tanks.

Mr Mrdak : It has been suggested on a number of occasions as a potential location for additional airport capacity. There are two issues, Senator. First is the existing uses of the site. While there is some debate about the future of the Caltex refinery, there are lots of other uses there. There is the desalination plant and obviously the suburb of Kurnell. Most importantly, setting aside those issues of cost and all of those relocation of activities, the reality is that any aviation infrastructure there would not give you a significant capacity lift because it would have to operate as part of the Sydney airport operation. So all of the studies have indicated that the capacity gain would be relatively limited. But the cost of developing that site is very high because of the need to build the transport linkages and relocate facilities. Then there are major environmental issues, because you have a nature reserve at Towra Point as well as the environmental issues of the site itself.

Senator WILLIAMS: I want to take you now to low-noise jet aircraft permitted to operate during curfews. Who would like to answer that?

Mr Mrdak : Start with us.

Senator WILLIAMS: Thank you. I understand that some low-noise jet aircraft are allowed to operate during the curfew periods at Adelaide and Sydney airports. Is that correct?

Mr Stone : That is right, Senator.

Senator WILLIAMS: How does this work? They have to qualify as a low-noise aircraft, obviously. Do they have to be graded? Obviously with technology and design—

Mr Stone : Senator, the legislation stipulates that the aircraft need to be less than 34,000 kilograms in weight to meet the ICAO chapter 3 requirements for noise performance and to be stipulated on a list which is gazetted under the legislation.

Senator WILLIAMS: Obviously medical flights would come under that category—the Royal Flying Doctor Service and those sort of things?

Mr Stone : Medical flights are exempt under the curfew.

CHAIR: We have had a rush of senators who wish to ask some questions in this area. We have only another 20 minutes. I ask you to keep that in mind.

Senator WILLIAMS: Do you know when the schedule of permissible aircraft was last updated at Sydney and Adelaide airports?

Mr Stone : Yes, Senator. The Adelaide list was established in 2000. There have not been any revisions to the list since then. The Sydney list was updated in 2005.

Senator WILLIAMS: And no revisions to that since?

Mr Stone : Not since 2005, Senator.

Senator WILLIAMS: Thanks, Chair.

CHAIR: I will go to Senator Eggleston.

Senator EGGLESTON: Thank you very much. I would like to ask you some questions about Perth airport. There has obviously been a really dramatic increase in the amount of traffic through Perth airport. Are you able to quantify that?

Mr Mrdak : Senator, I do not have the figures with me. But there certainly has been a significant growth in the last year or so.

Mr Doherty : Senator, I cannot answer the exact amount, but we can certainly take that on notice to provide that.

Senator EGGLESTON: I would be very interested in knowing the specific figures. It seems likely to continue to grow with the amount of fly-in fly-out workforce traffic through the airport. There have also been dramatic increases in traffic in both Karratha and Port Hedland, I think. Can you take that on notice?

Mr Mrdak : There has been significant growth at both Karratha and Port Hedland in the last two years, which has resulted in the introduction of ATS services and the like. So we can give you that information. We can give you the data.

Senator EGGLESTON: Do you have concerns about the ability of all three of those airports to cope with the increased traffic, especially Perth airport, with its present configuration? When you fly in at night, it looks like a used car yard. I am told there are more aircraft overnighting at Perth airport than any other capital city airport in the country.

Mr Doherty : There are a range of activities in train to address the growing pressure in Western Australia. The Western Australian state government has set up a review to establish a strategy for the future growth of aviation in the state. In relation to Perth airport specifically, the airport has a range of infrastructure developments underway at the moment. There has been some joint work with Airservices Australia to examine in particular the airspace related issues related to the efficient movement of the traffic between Perth and the north-west. So it is an issue which is being addressed.

Mr Mrdak : And you are certainly right, Senator. With the morning departures in particular, you have a large number of aircraft overnighting which are largely geared around the demands of the resource sector for early morning departures. As Mr Doherty indicates, there is a lot of work happening between ourselves, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, Airservices Australia, in particular, and the airport in relation to how you best manage those departure queues. Those morning departures affect not only airspace but also physical infrastructure and, at the other end, how that traffic is handled in the Kimberly region and the like. It relates to the growth in air traffic in that airspace.

Senator EGGLESTON: The really busy time, I gather, is between, say, 5.00 am and 8.00 in the morning at Perth. People have expressed to me concern about air safety issues in terms of the queue of aircraft departing, planes arriving and so on. You have said you are addressing them. How do you rate them? Are they high risks or medium risks or low risks in terms of air safety?

Mr Mrdak : I think the risk remains low. It is being managed. There has certainly been a growth of traffic which has had to be managed. That is what has led to the delays, in many ways, because air traffic control is obviously maintaining safety standards to handle those aircraft successfully and safely. Airservices Australia, which is on shortly, may be able to give you a more detailed answer about what they are doing on the ground to manage that traffic in the airspace. But certainly in relation to the airport’s capacity, as you are aware, the Perth airport is now proceeding with its plans for a terminal to accommodate these operations, particularly the fly-in, fly-out operations and the like. So there is both infrastructure going in as well as management systems, and Airservices Australia is looking at measures such as the further rollout of ADSB technology, which will enable better monitoring and traffic handling to try to reduce the delays in the airspace.

Senator EGGLESTON: One of the answers or solutions seems to have been direct flights from Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane into Port Hedland and Karratha. What impact are those direct flights having? How often are those direct flights occurring in terms of lightening the load overall on Perth airport?

CHAIR: This is a very important issue, but I may have to start winding it up because there are other senators.

Senator EGGLESTON: I will not ask any more questions.

CHAIR: Thanks, Senator Eggleston. If I can have the shortest direct answer, that would be great.

Mr Mrdak : We will get you the traffic numbers in relation to that. It has been one of the ways in which companies have managed the growth. But it is more about sourcing labour from the east coast states for fly-in fly-out to places like Karratha and Port Hedland. But obviously what that has led to is Airservices Australia upgrading its facilities and airspace management in both those locations.

Senator EGGLESTON: And there are problems there with servicing, I think, but I will leave it at that.

Senator RHIANNON: In the early 1990s, an airport crash risk assessment was undertaken for the environmental impact statement on Sydney airport’s third runway. Since then the population at risk, if there is a crash, has been increasing due to urban consolidation. Could you share with the committee the last time an assessment of the current and future crash risk as a result of the airport’s siting was undertaken?

Mr Mrdak : I am not aware of any such detailed analysis since that time. I will take that on notice.

Senator RHIANNON: Nobody else is aware. So it appears that there may not have been an assessment since the early 1990s?

Mr Mrdak : Not in the same context as that environmental impact assessment I am aware of. But the aviation agencies obviously maintain a constant oversight of regulatory and operational risks arising from the traffic growth. Obviously, safety measures are taken as necessary by Airservices Australia and CASA to ensure safe operations at the airport.

Senator RHIANNON: I was after the assessments—the assessment within the context of the EIS or a risk assessment in any other capacity. Could you take that on notice?

Mr Mrdak : Certainly.

Senator RHIANNON: I refer to the joint study on aviation capacity in the Sydney region in the context of this debate about the second airport. I notice that it used the terminology ‘supplementary airport’. If such a supplementary airport were built, what aircraft would be relocated from Sydney airport to it?

Mr Mrdak : It is very important to note that the study has worked on the basis that Sydney (Kingsford Smith) Airport would remain the primary airport for Sydney. It is one of Australia’s most important pieces of national infrastructure and has great economic benefit, being located where it is, and has great community access benefit, located where it is. There is no suggestion that that will change. So the study was based on how you maximise the efficiency of Sydney airport, recognising the need to balance its operations with the community’s needs in terms of environmental impacts. How do you maximise the efficiency of Sydney airport’s operations? At the same time, what does Sydney need to do in the future to provide additional capacity? We work on the basis that supplementary or additional airports around the world have grown traffic based on particular geographic areas, where they have been able to grow traffic in their geographic location, and that there are some segments of the market which may look to grow new markets at other airports. But we do not anticipate that that will reduce the primary focus on Sydney airport, particularly for international and business domestic travel.

Senator RHIANNON: You have spoken about additional capacity. Would the smaller planes be moved to the supplementary airport, and would Sydney airport then be able to increase its capacity for the big jets—the 747s, the airbuses et cetera? Is that the trend here?

Mr Mrdak : Certainly there is a trend to what we call upgauging larger aircraft. However, there are two issues. Firstly, the government has been very clear that it will retain the protections for regional access to Sydney airport. Secondly, there are limits to the upgauging that Sydney airport can accommodate because of its physical size. So there are issues there about Sydney airport’s longer-term capacity to continue to upgauge to larger aircraft and be capable of handling them.

As I said earlier, around the world, supplementary airports have grown their markets. Certain categories, such as low cost operations, look to supplementary airports. Given the nature of the regional demand for access to Sydney, it is unlikely that regional airlines would find a new supplementary airport attractive because predominantly you have a large number of passengers interlining and they need access to the services that would come through a primary airport.

Senator RHIANNON: Could you take on notice to provide more information about the upgauging? How much upgauging can Sydney airport handle?

Mr Mrdak : Certainly. The joint study looked at this very closely. There has been a significant increase in the numbers of people per aircraft. That will continue. We have some projections of that in the study.

Senator RHIANNON: Thank you. If there was a second or a supplementary airport—

CHAIR: I will have to make this short.

Senator RHIANNON: Last one. If there was a second or a supplementary airport in Sydney, would it bring relief from noise for people currently affected by Sydney airport?

Mr Mrdak : There are a range of initiatives being taken to reduce the noise exposure at Sydney airport. We have seen dramatic increases in what we call chapter 4 aircraft, which are new, modern aircraft which have a much lower noise footprint profile than previous generations of aircraft. But essentially Sydney airport will continue to grow as the primary airport for Sydney.

Senator RHIANNON: So the answer—

Mr Mrdak : There has been a dramatic reduction.

Senator HUMPHRIES: I have not got much time, so I want to follow up on the questions I asked last time about NASAG. You spoke at that time about how you were taking to the ministers this process of regulations dealing with development around airports affected by noise. I understand that there was a meeting of the Standing Council on Transport and Infrastructure on Friday, 18 May. Arising from that meeting there was a communique which said that ministers agreed on a national airports safeguarding framework and national land use planning regime to protect airports and communities from inappropriate off-airport development. It noted reservations from New South Wales on the format of the guidelines on measures for managing impacts of aircraft noise. I want to put it to you that that statement in the communique that the Commonwealth issued is inaccurate. There were not just reservations by New South Wales. In fact, every jurisdiction expressly rejected the framework insofar as it applied to aircraft noise. You put a six-part document from the meeting to the ministers. They accepted the five parts, at least, provisionally dealing with issues like wind shear, bird strike and things like that. But with respect to the most important element—that is, airport development affected by noise—there was rejection by the ministerial council. Is that not the case?

Mr Mrdak : No. Senator, that is not the case. I will ask Mr Wilson to give you the actual wording of the revised recommendation, which was suggested by the state of Victoria and adopted by all jurisdictions. You are absolutely right; the jurisdictions did agree to all of the other parts of the package. In relation to the guidance on noise, which as I said is providing guidance, Mr Wilson will give you the exact wording of the details. The communique is not a Commonwealth document. It was signed off by all ministers and jurisdictions at the meeting. It represents a clear statement of the meeting cleared by all jurisdictions at the meeting. I will ask Mr Wilson to give you the exact wording of the revised recommendation which was adopted.

Mr Wilson : Ministers agreed on principles for a national airport safeguarding framework. There are agreed guidelines B through F, as you indicated before. It states:

Subject to their operation being reported back to SCOTI in 12 months and agreed guideline A, measures for managing impacts of aircraft noise subject to its use being for the purpose of guiding strategic planning decisions and monitored with a report back to SCOTI in 12 months, and noting that following a request from officials, the Commonwealth’s intention to seek a review by Standards Australia of Australian standard AS 2021-2000, acoustics noise intrusion building siting and construction (AS20-21).

Senator HUMPHRIES: So guideline A has not been adopted by the ministerial council at this point? It is adopted provisionally, is it?

Mr Wilson : No. It has been adopted with the provision that it be used for strategic planning. So it has been adopted.

Senator HUMPHRIES: You are saying it has been accepted and it now has the same force as the other guidelines?

Mr Wilson : Yes.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Well, my advice is that that is not the case. Other jurisdictions have rejected that guideline and do not wish it to apply.

Mr Mrdak : No, Senator. Victoria tabled the recommendation which Mr Wilson has read out and it was adopted at the meeting by ministers. It noted reservations put by two jurisdictions. I attended the meeting. They were New South Wales and Western Australia. But all the jurisdictions agreed to the revised recommendation put by Victoria.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Well, I suppose, maybe you can take it to the next ministerial council meeting with what people might raise there. Is it true that the consultation period undertaken, which was exceptionally short at just three weeks, produced 75 submissions, most of which opposed or at least failed to endorse the draft noise guidelines in the framework?

Mr Mrdak : I will ask Mr Stone to comment on how many submissions we received.

Mr Stone : We received approximately 90 submissions as a result of the consultation documents. I do not think it is fair to say that most of them opposed the noise guidelines. We certainly had submissions that put both points of view.

Senator HUMPHRIES: That statement is not inconsistent. Some could have put both points of view. But did most oppose?

Mr Stone : No. It is not true that most opposed.

Senator HUMPHRIES: Have the states supported the decision by the Commonwealth to refer standard AS2021 to Standards Australia?

Mr Stone : Yes.

Senator HUMPHRIES: So they supported that?

Mr Stone : Yes.

Senator FAWCETT: I turn to answers you gave on notice at the last estimates following up on the NASAG. One of the questions I asked was: do you consider that the airspace and noise considerations are all that is required to safeguard airports? Your answer was yes. Are you aware of the ATSB report into engine failures or degradation of power after take-off?

Mr Mrdak : I am not aware of—

Senator FAWCETT: There is a specific report. I would like you to look into it. That report made recommendations about the requirement for forced landing areas for aircraft. There were 240-odd incidents leading up to 31 December 2010 in the decade before that. They include degradations in the forced landings and 75 energy failures. I would like you to revisit the discussion on public safety areas that has been pushed off to a later date. I would like your response to that on notice as to whether it is adequate.

Mr Mrdak : Certainly, Senator. I will do that.

Senator FAWCETT: Secondly, in terms of Adelaide and the efficacy of the NASAG process, I asked if a request to extend building heights were put forward, how would it be handled? The response was that there is no request. In February this year, the front page of the Adelaide Advertiser reported on a strong push to get rid of what they called archaic limitations on building heights. There was some talk of a 100-storey building. If you are familiar with the layout of airports in Adelaide, that would have a huge impact. I would like your written answer as to how you will handle that request when it inevitably comes.

Thirdly, I asked about the investment into aviation infrastructure in leased airports. During the briefing your staff gave, you talked about the percentages, and quite high percentages, in some cases. At Jandakot, for example, the figure is in the tens of millions allocated against the airport. The best the Parliamentary Library could find was water supply, sewerage, drainage, electricity, gas communication systems and existing interests. There is no mention of runways, taxiways, aircraft run-up areas and additional runways, which have been on the books for ages. What oversight does your department have on the implementation of the undertaking that these lessees have to invest the money they make in aviation related infrastructure?

Mr Doherty : I am not sure that there is a general obligation on us to do that. When the sale agreements were set up for the initial privatisation of the airports, a number of the airports did have obligations in relation to particular developments. They were discharged within the time frame for those obligations. So we do not as a rule have a process of keeping an account of the individual investment.

Senator FAWCETT: Mr Doherty, thank you. I ask you to take this on notice, given that we are rapidly running out of time. How will the department implement your stated vision from the white paper and your response to me that airports are predominantly about aviation? How will you actually achieve that vision statement for your department’s view of airports if you do not monitor the investment and the upkeep? I ask you to also extend that to ALOP aerodromes, particularly given that the transfer deed specifically prohibited local government from doing things like building dams or things that might attract bird life? Right at the moment there are a number of councils who are doing things like interrupting drainage, creating bird habitats and building dams right next to runways. I would like your detailed explanation about how you will maintain oversight of aviation infrastructure that is clearly degrading at both the leased airports and within the ALOP space.

Mr Mrdak : Certainly, Senator. I think Mr Doherty was talking about specific development commitments, but we will come back to you with a statement in relation to how we oversight them. As I said, ALOP, as we have discussed, is largely a matter for local government. The guidelines under NASAG try to deal with some of those issues you have raised. So we will come back to you with a detailed answer.

Senator FAWCETT: You said that it is a matter for local government. I will give you a list on notice of issues that I would like you to address one by one as to whether you think local government have actually done a credible job in preserving aviation infrastructure in the leased airports, such as Jandakot.

Senator HEFFERNAN: I refer to what Senator Humphries has raised regarding aircraft noise regulations and rules and what is an absurd proposition to build a new suburb under a flight path at Tralee.

CHAIR: Senator Heffernan, a question?

Senator HEFFERNAN: To avoid political interference by way of lobbying et cetera, will those guidelines sort the chaff from the grain? As you have heard me say many times, why do we not have a land transfer so the developer can go and do it somewhere else? Are you confident that those noise guidelines and the sense behind them can overcome what will be a political decision to build or not build a new suburb under a growing airport’s flight path?

Mr Mrdak : The guidance, which was agreed by the minister the other day, will provide further matters which the New South Wales government can look at. But it will not preclude them taking a decision to build that development.

Senator HEFFERNAN: I have grave reservations about the methodologies used to lobby for that. Thank you.

CHAIR: Thanks, gentlemen. Now we will call Airservices Australia.