The Australian Antarctic Division is releasing updated plans for its jet link between Hobart and the Wilkins Blue Runway later this week which will multiply its original ambitions for the route.

Its Air Transport Project manager Charlton Clark says that while the current season for services on the supply route is half over, and the Skytraders Airbus A319 is awaiting final approvals from the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, it will be deployed far more efficiently than earlier planned when it flies its first full season between next October and February 2009.

This is good news the department had been sitting on until after the jet completed proving flights to a frozen sea ice strip at the US run McMurdo Sound base last month, and a historic first flight to Wilkins and back this week, and the new Minister for the Ice, Peter Garrett, can usher in the transformation it brings to Antarctic research and politics.

Clark says, “The department has always said this will change the way Australia engages with Antarctica.”

In fact, this puts Australia right in the spotlight for the crucial issues for the continent of ice which is the urgency of climate research programs and the continuous pressure within some countries and the resources sectors for access to its offshore or near-shore oil, gas and mineral riches.

The Wilkins facility makes it possible for many countries with adjacent bases or research sites to mount quick turnaround science missions that are impractical using other runways, or require a massive energy consumption to heat, feed and shelter scientists forced to spend a winter waiting for a ship.

It also breaks the American and Russian dominance of heavy air lift facilities in Antarctica. Wilkins can take a jet of any size, provided it arrives with enough fuel to also leave (there is no refuelling allowed for anything other than light ski-equipped turbo-props).

Countries with bases for whom Wilkins opens new co-operative transport options include China, India, Russia, France, Japan and South Africa.

But it is closed to Antarctic tourism. An early question that the government may have to is answer is, “for how long”?

Peter Fray

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