What does the future hold for the megatropolis that is rising within the Gold Coast-Brisbane-Sunshine Coast area, now that the row over a new runway for Brisbane Airport is in full voice in the Queensland media?
If the history of air transport in this country since the jet age began is a guide, it will be a far bigger and more exciting future than the airports or airlines claim to see today, because they have always underestimated the future in the past.
Seen from outside, SEQ has a massive future. It also has three main airports that will be overwhelmed by growth and thus hinder that future if they are managed only as property investment companies in which the directors, as required by law, do nothing more than focus very tightly on delivering maximum returns in as few years as possible to their owners.
Brisbane Airport Corporation like the other privatized gateway airports purchased a very long term lease on an opportunity to do what ever it liked with the asset. There are no meaningful limitations on its actions. The retail opportunities they present, and the charges they collect from the airlines, are set to as much as it can get away with subject to depressing demand so that higher prices are undermined by lower demand or gross revenue.
In the case of Brisbane Airport, its future will benefit as well to the extent that Sydney Airport screws up, and drives the business activities that generate air travel out of Sydney to locations in Melbourne or SEQ.
What is bad for Sydney is good for greater Brisbane, and greater Melbourne, and there is a lot that is bad in maritime, rail and road access to and within Sydney, notwithstanding some recent, costly and delayed improvements to rail freight handling.
SEQ like greater Melbourne, has an amazing amount of space for the physical aspects of economic growth to exploit. Sydney is topographically constrained. There is much of Sydney that would need to be tunneled, graded or otherwise terraformed, to provide the expansion opportunities of flat and comparatively easy to access land in its northern and southern rivals.
Sydney is made unlucky in this sense by both its political legacies and the topopgraphy that makes it such a beautiful place.
Like Melbourne, Brisbane does also have the space to build competing airports to the main airport. Loitering with intent in the background is an opportunity to build a second major Brisbane airport north of the Gold Coast, that could ultimately also replace the Gold Coast airport, or ‘liberate’ its incredible real estate value, when the success of the current airport, at Coolangatta, becomes too much for the space available.
Such an airport would not however remove the need for the existing Brisbane Airport, far from it, but it might prove very relevant to the future southwards movement of Brisbane’s economic landscape, as well as Gold Coast growth.
A Brisbane Airport that became perceived as an obstacle rather than facilitator of Brisbane’s economy would advance the possibility of a second Brisbane/Gold Coast airport closer above the distant horizon than it is now, just as will the future onset of congestion at the existing Gold Coast airport.
How might the new Brisbane Airport runway come into being faster than seems likely at the moment? Arguably the same way tourism and other trophy industrial or investment developments are encouraged to happen in Queensland and all over Australia, which is through ‘incentives’.
The state interest in lifting net economic activity through negotiated incentives and the insistence of companies to lower risk or cost in investing in such activities generally ends up with a compromise the makes the wheels of commerce, or the jet turbines, turn.
If, for argument’s sake, the Queensland government incentivizes the Brisbane Airport Corporation to build the damn thing pronto, its not money that the airlines or the airport is going to try to claw back from travellers. Its not going to be a charge that is self defeating by discouraging travel, although it will be a charge on public state revenues.
Nor is it an outcome the Newman government is likely to relish, but it’s a fair bet it has seen it coming, and there is nothing it can do to force the Brisbane Airport Corporation to forgo its profit strategy with an accelerated capital expenditure program for the second major runway project.
It could be termed a ransom demand, except that the Brisbane Airport Corporation hasn’t asked for one, in as many words, although the notion of an airport holding a state economy hostage has a popular media appeal about it, should the subtleties of airport to government signalling break down.