“Rampant” development around Melbourne’s Essendon Airport

In the aftermath of yesterday’s plane crash at Essendon which killed the pilot and four passengers, The Age was quick to report claims that “rampant” airport development is putting thousands of people on the ground at risk from a plane crash (Rampant airport development puts thousands in danger: planning expert, residents);

Essendon Airport’s expansion as a retail and commercial precinct should never have been allowed to happen, a planning expert said in the wake of Tuesday’s plane crash in which five died. And residents living near the airfield – who for decades have demanded its closure – say the latest accident provides further proof it is unsafe so close to housing.

The planning expert is RMIT planning academic Michael Buxton:

He said the privatisation of Australian airports from 1997 had seen their leaseholders make “packets of money” by building on vacant land around airstrips. The plane that crashed on Tuesday hit the Essendon DFO, built since the airport’s privatisation in 1998…He said state governments had failed to strongly oppose bad developments at airports – despite the dangers they introduced.

I think the critical thing here is to bear in mind Premier Daniel Andrew’s view that we should wait to get the facts before making policy pronouncements. However given the emotive way The Age framed its report yesterday (which looks positively purple compared to the Herald-Sun’s mild headline, Essendon Airport’s future in spotlight amid overdevelopment fears), I think there are several points to bear in mind about Essendon Airport.

  • It’s an enormous site (circa 3 sq kms) with the potential to make a huge contribution to dwelling supply close to the city centre were it to cease operation as an airport.
  • It’s an important element of infrastructure for the economy of the city and the state. There are around 50,000 flights per year; if it were closed or restricted, it would be very difficult to find a replacement location offering the advantages of proximity to the city. It’s heritage significance is bound to be very high too.
  • It’s not surprising residents would like the airport removed, but it was built before the surrounding land uses. It was established in 1921 and became Melbourne’s international airport in February 1950. I expect today’s light planes are no noisier on average than the Lockheed Electras, Vickers Viscounts and Fokker Friendships that flew out of Essendon up to 1970.
  • The risk of a crash that kills people on the ground – like the one that killed six residents in 1978 – is real but it’s extremely low. The world is full of airports that are cheek-by-jowl with retail, transport and other uses. Every major airport in Australia has a large terminal building adjacent to the runway with extensive concentrations of workers and travellers. Aircraft are refuelled beside them. For context, 291 people died on Victoria’s roads last year and 46 died on the state’s rail network between 1 July 2010 and 30 June 2012.
  • None of the surrounding development contravenes the current aviation safety standards. Further into its report, The Age says “Peter Bruce, deputy chair of Swinburne University’s aviation department, said there was tight regulation to prevent developments on airport grounds interfering with safety”.
  • Former airport land was redeveloped for various uses including big box retail, but it wasn’t land required for safety reasons. Big box retailing and warehouses are appropriate uses beside airports because they’re not sensitive to noise and they’re not occupied 24 hours a day like residential. Some firms – like logistics operators – benefit from proximity to the airport.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is investigating the cause of the crash and Daniel Andrews said yesterday the state Coroner in cooperation with Victoria Police, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and the ATSB will “look at everything to do with this incident”. I expect the Coroner will come to a view, inter alia, on the dangers presented by the proximity of surrounding land uses to the airport.

It’s unfortunate the way the issue has been brought to attention, but I think the government should take another look at the strategic role of the site and in particular whether or not it would be better used for housing and/or other uses rather than continue as an airport. That’s an analysis that is about much more than safety and it’s one the Coroner isn’t well equipped to undertake in my view (e.g.see Do coroners (sometimes) go too far?).

Update 24 February 2017:

When asked on Wednesday about similar incidents involving the same air frame, ATSB Chief Commissioner, Greg Hood, said “Toowoomba comes to mind”.

In that incident, in 2001 in Toowoomba, a Beech King Air C90 suffered left-engine failure on takeoff. It veered gently left, lost altitude and crashed about 560 metres beyond the end of the runway, killing all on board.

560 metres beyond the end of the runway would be well into surrounding housing at Essendon. Of course despite the similarities we don’t know if the two crashes are related, but the Toowoomba incident indicates that critics of the big box retail development should take note that exactly where a plane crashes on take-off or landing is difficult to predict precisely. Essendon in fact has no buffer space at the end the runway used on Tuesday; it abuts the freeway.