If magic dust could be sprinkled over a raw patch of land to create the greatest number of jobs, you’d be hard pressed to find something better than an airport. There’s not only the obvious jobs in the terminal and on the tarmac, but the thousands of upstream jobs that supply the enormous variety of goods and services needed to keep an airport ticking over each day.
A comprehensive economic examination of Australia’s major airports by the Bureau of Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Economics (BITRE) finds that as passenger numbers have gone skywards in recent years, so have jobs. And this job growth is well ahead of employment growth in each respective city, proving just how good for business airports are. Yet there is one glaring exception to this success story. It is called Sydney. BITRE figures show while Kingsford Smith remains the nation’s number one transport hub, its role as a creator of new jobs is slipping badly.
To understand Sydney’s unique position, it’s necessary to understand some facts and figures. Experience at major airports across the world shows that every million air passengers employs on average one thousand people. On top of this, there are the indirect jobs that flow from the airport activity that kick up job figures two to three times higher again. Taxi drivers, for example, would fit into this category. If Sydney airport didn’t exist then the number of taxi drivers would drop as much of their work involves the airport. It would be a similar story for the number of hotel nights and restaurant meals that exist to service fly-in visitors.
It is worth comparing how Sydney is faring in comparison with the next two biggest airports, Melbourne and Brisbane. Both these airports are located on vast precincts with Melbourne two and a half times the size of Sydney and Brisbane three times bigger. Sydney Airport, carved from a paddock in the early 20th century, is physically hemmed in by city growth. There is simply no further space to expand.
As the new BITRE findings show, job growth at both Melbourne and Brisbane is well above their city averages, with Brisbane Airport adding nearly 4,000 jobs over five years, and Melbourne up to 4,500 jobs. The figures are even more impressive at the Gold Coast and Perth. In Sydney it is a different story where passenger growth has now slipped behind both Melbourne and Brisbane. Even more important are its job figures. For the five years from 2006 to 2011, only 200 new jobs were created at Sydney Airport, a growth rate of a mere one per cent, well below the overall city average of eight per cent.
Compounding Sydney Airport’s problems is its capacity to manage tarmac congestion. The BITRE report finds that on-time departures are now the worst of any mainland capital city airport. It is only going to get worse. By 2025, the number of flights delayed by 15 minutes or more at Sydney will double. By 2035, half of all flights will run late. With four out of all ten flights going through Sydney, the implications for the entire nation are enormous.
Last year’s comprehensive Commonwealth/NSW Joint Study on aviation capacity in the Sydney region found that Sydney Airport is already losing business. Its share of international travel is dropping and now accounts for 40 per cent of all arrivals and departures, down from 50 per cent in 2000. In 2011, Melbourne’s international traffic grew by four times that of Sydney’s. This latest report confirms that the NSW economy is already starting to suffer from the constraints experienced at Sydney Airport.
We cannot lose sight of the fact that airports are key economic drivers. Airports with available space can absorb additional business activity. Canberra, for example, has a business park and large retail outlets including supermarkets and hardware stores. Other airports have the capacity to house a large spill-over of aviation related activity. Sydney cannot as it is full.
It is welcome news that the Daily Telegraph and a growing number of councils and bodies such as the Sydney Business Chamber are backing a second airport for Sydney. A second airport would provide a large alternative job source and it would also be a driver for other infrastructure investment.
Sydney’s population will swell by 40 per cent over the next three decades. Demand for air travel in the Sydney region is set to double over this same period. The NSW Government’s strategic plan NSW 2021 sets ambitious targets for new investment and jobs. A second airport for Sydney would be a great place to start.
Leader of the Australian Labor Party, MP for Grayndler, Rabbitohs Life Member. Authorised by Anthony Albanese, ALP, Canberra.