How Western Sydney Airport Could Change Australian Aviation

After several decades of procrastination and countless taxpayer dollars squandered on pointless reviews and consultations, groundworks have commenced at Sydney’s second commercial airport. Like big infrastructure projects everywhere, the multi-billion dollar project looks slick and glossy on the drawing board. But things could go many ways once the airport opens. It could be a monumental white elephant or it could fundamentally change Australia aviation. The airport could limp along like Melbourne’s second airport at Avalon. There are several possibilities.

The new Western Sydney Airport is due to open in 2026. Photo: Western Sydney Airport.

What’s the issue at the current Sydney Airport?

The current Sydney Airport is Australia’s biggest and handles over 44 million passengers a year. One of its few redeeming features is its proximity to the city and the eastern suburbs – which is great if you live within Sydney’s goat’s cheese circle.

In addition to access issues, the current airport is constrained by limited land space, overnight curfew restrictions, capacity issues and frequent runway shutdowns owing to the weather. There is limited opportunity at Sydney Airport to meet increasing passenger and airline demand beyond the short to medium term.

Just another delay plagued morning at Sydney Airport. Photo: Andrew Curran / Simple Flying.

Which should make the case for a second airport all the stronger.

Where is the new airport?

The Western Sydney Airport is located at Badgerys Creek, 47 kilometers west of the current airport (a perfect opportunity for Uber Air perhaps!). When the airport opens in 2026, there will be a single 3,700 x 60-meter runway, a full-length parallel taxiway with rapid exit taxiways and a 65,000 square meter terminal capable of handling ten million passengers a year. A motorway will be built to the airport, linking into Sydney’s main motorway network (such as it is) and it looks increasingly likely a rail link will be built out to the airport. 

As noted in Flight Global, the scale of the new Western Sydney Airport has grown in recent years as pressures on Sydney Airport have intensified. When the airport reaches full capacity, in about 30 years’ time, there should be two runways capable of handling 185,000 flights and 37 million passengers annually. 

Assuming things get built on time and, what will happen when the airport opens for business in 2026?

Will the passengers come?

To the untrained eye, Sydney, like most cities, can appear to be one big homogeneous sprawl. Geographically it is very big. Try driving from Cronulla to Richmond, from Palmie to Campbelltown – it takes hours.  But in reality, Sydney is a series of very discrete zones that have both invisible and visible boundaries. Of all the Australian cities, Sydney does the “where do you live” thing best, or worst, depending on your point of view.

There’s a widespread belief that the majority of local users of Sydney Airport come from certain parts of Sydney – mostly within the mythical goat’s cheese circle. It’s patently untrue. Firmly outside the circle, over 2.5 million people live in Greater Western Sydney and it is one of the fastest-growing areas in Australia.

Residents of Sydney’s west, southwest, and northwest are big users of Sydney Airport and airline travel in general. They are an inbuilt and growing constituency for the new Western Sydney Airport.

Some 2.5 million people live in the vicinity of Western Sydney Airport. Source: Google Maps.

What about the airlines?

Western Sydney Airport will only work if potential passengers have the flights to service their needs. Inbound international travelers everywhere like airports close to city centers, tourist attractions, hotels, and key commercial centers. The current Sydney Airport offers these, which makes me think most international airlines, despite the limitations of Sydney’s international terminal, will be reluctant to switch their flights to Western Sydney Airport.

Low-cost carriers such as Scoot, Jetstar, AirAsia, and Malindo Air might be tempted as Sydney Airport is notoriously expensive for airlines to operate in and out of. But Western Sydney Airport is keen to be seen as not just an airport for low-cost carriers. However, I suspect luring the full-service carriers out to Badgerys Creek will be a tough task.

Western Sydney Airport wants to attract full-service carriers rather than just low-cost carriers. Photo: Western Sydney Airport.

But the airport has signed MOUs with both Qantas and Virgin Australia. Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce, has previously flagged sending some Jetstar services out there and he’s broadly in support of a second airport for Sydney. Presently, Mr Joyce is locked in a furious war of words with airport owners in Australia, including Sydney, over airport costs. Signing an MOU with a rival airport could be nothing but a shot across Sydney Airport’s bows. How many full-service Qantas aircraft he is prepared to send out to Western Sydney Airport remains to be seen.

I suspect both Virgin Australia and Qantas will initially test the waters with limited domestic flights to a small range of destinations out of Western Sydney Airport – the same day return commuter market to Melbourne and Brisbane kind of thing. If the takeup is good, you could expect the services to expand. I expect there will be some keen incentives to get both airlines to shift some operations out to Western Sydney Airport.

If you built it, will they come? Photo: Western Sydney Airport

But will they move out west lock stock and barrel? Highly unlikely. Will Western Sydney Airport change Australian aviation? Highly unlikely. It will be handy for people who live and work in the Western Sydney region. Will it take the pressure of Sydney Airport? Probably not. I suspect, like always, that as soon as a slot becomes vacant at Sydney Airport, it will promptly be filled. Assuming all goes well with the build-out at Badgerys Creek, I reckon the probable outcome for the Western Sydney Airport will be to operate as a supplement to the current Sydney Airport.

Got a view on the new Western Sydney Airport and the impact it might have on Australian aviation. Let us know and post a comment.