In this media release from the Sydney Airport Community Forum,
Graeme Harrison questions whether a terrorism-affected plane should
return to a densely populated metropolis? It’s a
crazy plan from Transport Minister John Anderson if safety is his main
OK, so everyone’s relieved the main story of the night was that the
crisis at Sydney Airport turned out to be a hoax – that the
terrorism-affected flight which landed at Sydney’s Kingsford Smith
Airport (KSA) did not have a bomb.

But let’s examine “the plan”, in case the next terrorism-affected
flight more closely resembles a September 11 flight, rather than a sick
bag hoax. Minister Anderson has stated, “Safety comes first…
Thank God everyone is safe both in the air and on the ground,” in The Age and he chose his words well by included those on the ground in his wishing for everyone’s safety.

In fact, it is a crazy anachronism of Sydney that there was not a safe
destination to which the plane could be sent in such an
emergency. Had it happened in the USA, Japan, the UK or most of
Europe, such a plane which had raised a full terrorist alert would NOT
have been guided by air traffic control back to a metropolis of four
million people, especially with the then-suspicion of a bomb on board.

Throughout the US and Europe there are runways with only green fields
around them, capable of taking 747s. In such countries, a
not-too-distant non-metropolitan airport would have been selected for
the safe return of such a plane. In the case of Sydney, the only
place to land a 747 is 9km from the CBD, and in a location where a
‘dirty bomb’ would have made the whole of Sydney unliveable for
generations. If the plane had in fact been under the control of a
terrorist, telling the pilot what to say, it may have got clearance to
land at KSA but then not touched down, and after flying low over the
16R runway it was assigned, it could have been at the CBD high-rise in
two minutes, which is hardly enough time for people to wonder why it
didn’t land on its first pass.

London has Heathrow and Gatwick well away from the city centre, and
lots of other 747-capable runways around. The US has major
airports scattered across the country. Europe has many new
airports, such as Munich well away from dense population centres.
Japan’s Narita and Kansai are located well away from major
cities. But an hour out of Sydney, bound for LA, the only option
was to refuse a return, insisting on Nadi (Fiji) or else Sydney or
Brisbane, both of which are within the city with runway alignment close
to the track needed to hit the high rise buildings.

Sydney Airport is about to fully rebuild itself. The new much
larger jets such as the double-decker Airbus A380 is simply too heavy
to land on the runways at Mascot. They need to be significantly
strengthened – a very difficult job with an airport running near its
maximum allowed throughput of 80 movements an hour for many hours of
the day. And you can’t close a-runway-at-a-time to pour the new
concrete, as the runways cross, so the pesky bit where they cross needs
to get done at some other point. Besides, wind direction can
change at any time, and you don’t want to touchdown in wet cement.

A more worrisome aspect is that the larger planes have almost double
the wingspan of existing jets, and the network of taxiways at KSA are
too close to the runways they service to safely allow an A380 to land
while another taxis. These will need to be rebuilt farther away
from the runways they service. And that itself is a major
problem, given the reclaimed land ‘fingers’ into Botany Bay were made
just wide enough to take the existing runway and taxiway. Then
there are the bridges over the freeway that passes under the runways –
they too may need to be widened if the taxiways are given greater
separation from the runways.

The question of just what Capital Expenditure is needed at Sydney
Airport has been the subject of news items this past week. In the
of 21 July was the quote: ‘ “I’ve historically used $4 billion and
that’s on the conservative side. They may get away with $3 billion,”
said David Leitch, analyst with JPMorgan.’

In reply Max Moore-Wilton was quoted in The Age
of 25 July as saying, “We are going to spend around $500 million or
more,” but the CapEx items he cited did not include any work on
runways. He said “with the new 555 seat double deck Airbus A380
set to land in Australia in 2006, SACL is undertaking a series of
projects including check bag screening improvement, new airport field
lighting and continuing maintenance expenditure.”

So the $500m OR MORE does not appear to include the rework of the
runways. Perhaps in what he’s not disclosing is a plan to
strengthen just one runway, and to not have any planes on the adjoining
taxiways when the occasional A380 lands or takes off. But at some
point, most of what is at Mascot in terms of tarmac, has to be replaced
to allow regular flights of the heavier and wider planes. Presumably
Max is trying to ease the bad news to the financial community by not
talking about the larger CapEx items JP Morgan is factoring in.

Also, in the SMH
of 21 July was the article that “Bankstown Airport is preparing for a
runway upgrade which would allow it to begin regular commuter flights.
The airport wants to extend its main east-west runway by 200 metres to
enable it to handle fully loaded aircraft carrying up to 100

Luckily, by way of balance the SMH also published my Letter-to-editor of 22 July:

Move the internationals

The Badgerys Creek airport site environmental impact statement failed
to meet its requirement “to consider all prudent and feasible
alternatives”. Southern Highland sites such as Wilton affect 20 to 40
times fewer people than Badgerys Creek and remove 7 per cent of the
Sydney basin’s air pollution, while involving the same travel time.

But the one thing that flawed impact statement proved was that
continued expansion of Mascot and Bankstown (“Bankstown bid for
commuter flights upgrade”, Herald, July 21) was the worst possible
scenario – affecting about 10 times more people than for Badgerys Creek
and hence 200 to 400 times more than for Wilton.

Instead of rebuilding runways at Mascot to take the newer/larger jets
and extending Bankstown’s runways to take scheduled flights, it would
be better to locate Customs and Immigration to Wilton, so that just
international passengers and freight go via a new airport. Spending
more to entrench the existing sites flies in the face of the one truth
that came out of the impact statement.

The BIG issue is that if SACL is to spend as little as half a billion
dollars or as much as $3-4b as mooted, with expansion of Bankstown
simultaneously, then clearly any construction of a new set of runways
and most taxiways at KSA SHOULD be subject to a proper EIS… as the
amounts in question are the same as building an initial
international-only airport at Wilton, and such option needs to be
considered compared to a >200x worse outcome (in terms of numbers
affected) equivalent project at KSA/Bankstown.

Many years ago Washington DC faced the same dilemma. The
traditional National Airport was close to downtown, but the politicians
were the most frequent users and liked the convenience. The
result was that Dulles airport was built farther out, with National
reserved for short-haul domestic flights… and that combination works
a charm.

Howard and Anderson have repeated stated that Badgerys is not needed.
But at present, flightpaths are contorted through as much as 110 degree
turns to avoid flying over Liberal electorates. When Howard does
finally step down, the gerrymander that is the government’s hand-
picked community advisers (people like Joe Hockey etc) must fall to
true democratic principles. Currently Liberal electorates in
Sydney contribute about 70% of resident usage at the airport, but
receive only 3% of jet departure noise, and only 17% of total noise

In any fair sharing of noise impact, the Liberal electorates of Sydney
could expect a doubling or more of their share of the noise. That
would be on top of SACL operating at double the 2001 flight volumes
within a few years, leading to a 400% overall increase in noise and
crash risk. In such a circumstance, the PM’s own electorate would
be badly affected, receiving the fruits of this government’s
ill-conceived privatisation. Before the PM moved much of the
noise off Benelong, Hunters Hill resident and Macquarie Bank boss, Mr
Moss was a vocal advocate for moving the aircraft noise away from
residents. It will be unclear just who he will complain to when
Hunters Hill’s noise dose is quadrupled within a few years.

Under the requirements of the Commonwealth Airports Act 1996, Sydney
Airport is required to prepare an Environmental Management Strategy
every 5 years. The SACL Environmental Management Strategy, known
as The First Term or 1999 Environmental Strategy, was adopted in 1999
and thus concludes at the end of this year. A Preliminary Draft
Sydney Airport Environmental Strategy (AES) has been prepared for the
period 2005 – 2010. This is may be downloaded from but of course it does not deal with any
environmental issues once the wheels leave the tarmac. But it
does make sense for the government to provide some leadership in this

Perhaps the current terrorist alert might finally swing the balance for
enough of the four million people affected to realise that if we are to
expend some billions in new aviation assets, then we may as well have
somewhere farther away from Sydney’s CBD. New runways in the most
environmentally sound location will not cost much more than the full
rebuild of the old currently on the planning table. Besides, for
Australia’s largest single infrastructure project, does it really make
sense for the government to hand such a decision over to a commercial
entity, which would undoubtedly like to see them entrenched where they
are. The Howard/Anderson argument will be that, now that the
airport is run by a commercial interest, it is no longer subject to the
government’s rules on EIS matters. But this was the very
shortsightedness of Howard selling off the airport before the noise
problem had been fixed – another non-core promise that disappeared over

Reader feedback:

Poor old Graeme Harrison. Obviously all those planes flying over
his house have rattled his brains as well as the windows. The
Captain of the UA aircraft had several alternatives, not just Sydney
and there are a number of greenfields sites where a Boeing 747-400
could land outside a metropolitan area, although they may take a bit of
creative thinking to come up with. United have in the past used
Pago Pago for diversions, a small island in American Samoa, and yes the
American does mean the US of A, Pago Pago is American territory.
Auckland and Christchurch also both can accommodate a 747.
Melbourne has it’s international airport 30 km from the centre of town.

Looking at the news footage from last night, it appeared to me that the
aircraft landed not on 16R, but 34L, approaching over Botany Bay from
the south, same strip, just 180° the opposite direction. Mr
Harrison is perhaps being a bit disingenuous by trying to hint that the
aircraft made its approach over the CBD.

He also conveniently forgets that the RAAF have a number of airfields,
Richmond and Williamtown can take a 747 (they certainly take a C5),
further a field Amberley is even longer. Nowra and East Sale are
probably a bit short. All are close to metropolitan areas, but further
from the centre of Sydney than Kingsford Smith. These military
airfields are of course all closed to civil aircraft. Except in
an emergency. Then there is the ultimate greenfields strip of
all, Woomera. The only problem here is it is so far from anywhere
that United would have got there before emergency services were there
in any significant numbers. East Sale is another option.
Scherger, Tindal and Curtin are all would have been well within reach
of the United aircraft, after all it had fuel to get all the way to LA.

So with all these potential options why Sydney asks the SACF? Mr
Harrison also neglects some of the uglier logistic aspects of such an
emergency. If there truly had been an explosive on board then one
must consider how long it is going to take to get the aircraft down and
the passengers off. Also would where you will provide hospital
beds for in excess of 300 people. In Australia, with relatively
few concentrations of high level medical services has very few centres
that could look after so many injured people, or if it all went to clay
store that many dead bodies. Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane
become your only choices. The only real question is why did it
take 60 minutes to get the passengers off after landing. If there
was a bomb then they were placed at a needless risk.

Mr Harrison should be more honest. He has a gripe with Sydney
Airport because all the noise has affected his property value.
Then most Crikey readers are probably astute enough to have twigged to
the blindingly obvious already

Jackson Harding


I’m obviously missing something here. All the news reports are going on
about the bomb alert on the UAL plane being a hoax. However, as far as
I can gather, all that happened was that the crew interpreted B-O-B on
an air sick bag as meaning “bomb on board”. Has anyone determined that
this is actually what the initials meant? Is “B-O-B” international
shorthand for “bomb on board”? Do we know for sure that it wasn’t some
kid named Robert practising writing the short form of his name? To my
way of thinking, a hoax needs someone to explicitly write or call in a
warning about a non-existent threat. Unless there’s something we
haven’t been told, I don’t believe this happened in this case. A
“scare” is probably a better description, caused by air crew who were
alert and alarmed!

Peter Fray

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