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‘Small town’ jets signal big changes in regional aviation

There was a seemingly trivial announcement put out by the Minister for Infrastructure and Transport, Anthony Albanese, this morning about how in a week’s time Port Macquarie starts a six month $18 million upgrade of its runway and taxiways to 180 passenger A320 or 737 standards.

Except that it is anything but of minor importance to air travel in Australia, or to Sydney in particular.

It is as clear a signal as any that the days of state Premiers and airport owners carrying on about the inconvenience and waste of tiny little ‘bug smasher’ country feeder flights clogging up big city airports are coming to an end, and fast.

While no-one yet has any plans to fly medium sized single aisle jets to Port Macquarie from the middle of next year to a capital city, within 10 years the current rate of growth in low fare inspired traffic in the free-for-all skies of Australian domestic flying is going to meet the population and economic growth of rural centres in this country, and change everything.

Australia cannot grow its agricultural, energy resources and services sectors to feed or fuel itself and the Asian century without growing its air services, which is why the jets that today fly between the southern capitals and Darwin, Adelaide, Cairns, Mackay and Rockhampton are also going to be serving the likes of Dubbo, Tamworth, Wagga Wagga, Ballarat, Nowra, Orange, Moree, and so forth.

The announcement about Port Macquarie is, in terms of where the short to medium range airliner sector is headed, a result of astute future proofing of its growth prospects by local and national governments in partnership.

It makes the comments about the future adequacy of Sydney Airport by the chairman of Sydney Airport Holdings, Max Moore-Wilton and the claimed undesirability of catering for small or insignificant rural flights, which are so ‘unfairly protected’ by legislation, look painfully irrelevant.

And it makes the policy of the Premier of NSW,  Barry O’Farrell, that Sydney’s second airport will be at Canberra connected by a fast train to Sydney, look idiotic.

Does Premier O’Farrell truly believe that the business and leisure generated traffic he expects will fly between Sydney and the emerging growth centres of his state are going to overfly Sydney to continue on to Canberra, 290 kilometres to the south-west, where their passengers are going to stuff around for an hour or so waiting for any train to get them back to the harbour city, never mind a hugely expensive fast rail project costing several times that of the northwest metropolitan rail link,  which the state can’t afford to get any closer to the centre of town than Epping?

Jets to Port Macquarie, and soon, is all about the reality of growth and the Asia century that O’Farrell and Moore-Wilton from opposite ends of the cognitive spectrum appear unwilling to accommodate.

It is on the part of both figures, a very damaging stance to assume if the overall economic interests of the state are to be taken seriously.

They can’t seriously argue that an A320 or 737 to a country centre in NSW is less important than one flying to Adelaide or Cairns? What will inevitably happen if the obvious solution to Sydney Airport congestion, a second Sydney Airport in the western metropolitan area, isn’t built, is that jets will come to Port Macquarie, but they will be from Brisbane or Melbourne or both, because Sydney will no longer be relevant to the expanding needs of its regional centres, which will become economically linked to the rival capital cities in its place.

Postscript: Bombardier and ATR are contemplating larger capacity versions of today’s turbo-prop airliners to  exploit the fuel saving advantages of these aircraft over flight stages of less than an hour where demand is quickly outgrowing the size of their Q400s or ATR 72s. These solutions, for which SE Australia regional flights seem ideally sized, could be in service within eight years. Similarly, the use of ‘open rotor’ engine designs, which could be both fast and frugal over medium flight stages, are also under study, picking up from where so called unducted fan engines were headed in the late ’80s with technology that proved too immature and risky more than 25 years ago.

But whether it is jets, open rotors, or jet sized turbo-props, what is happening at Port Macquarie is a reminder that the argument about banishing ‘small’ regional centre services from Sydney is being rendered absurd by the emerging economic opportunities within NSW.

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