This is lunacy, but at Sydney Airport now jets are being told to stay on the ground, ready to take off, engines turning, under empty skies, waiting for 20 minutes or longer at times, because the airport has exceeded its politically imposed capacity for airliner movements.

This farce, and thousands of passengers stewing in their seats wondering what the hell is going on while they wait for a new “metering period” to begin before they can get airborne, makes Sydney Airport a joke.

You can hear this farce in action here (go to the 18 minute mark to hear the most relevant exchanges) which was made on Monday between 7pm  to 7.30pm, as Sydney tower tells flights caught in the madness how many minutes they have to wait before they can even think of starting to move to the takeoff point.

This fiasco is also having crippling effects right across Australia, because almost half the domestic fleet has to pass through Sydney Airport at least once a day, and up to eight times a day for some jets, and the political delays can cause quite serious ripple effects on other airports, and for thousands of people who aren’t even flying to or from Sydney, particularly later in the day, when flights can’t even escape from Sydney after the 11pm curfew, which is enforced with fines running into hundreds of thousands of dollars per breach.

Sydney has a cap of no more than 80 takeoffs and landing in total per hour.

According to controllers who have been in touch with us, the federal government is about to direct the employment of a person in the Sydney control tower whose role will be to count flights and stop the airport functioning efficiently when it exceeds its politically determined quota.

The debacle is putting pressure on Sydney Airport, which in its submissions to the Productivity Commission, says the 80 landings plus takeoffs limit per hour places an artificial limit on  the capacity of the runways and navigation technology to handle substantially more flights.

It has lobbied hard to have that cap lifted, but publicly acknowledges that the limits are engraved in stone for political reasons.

The issues are even more complex, in that the airport could arguably handle an additional 16 Airbus A380s an hour, but because of politically driven “ring fencing” of scheduling slots for small regional turbo-props, those slower moving aircraft with between 18-33 seats can each require as much time to be vectored into their final approaches by the tower as three or more larger, faster jets carrying anywhere from 142-486 seats based on current timetables.

It is this political strangulation of Sydney Airport, and its diabolical side consequences for traffic flows at other airports, that explains the federal government’s enthusiasm for the building of a second jet airport for Sydney, which in turn has been a politically dangerously sensitive issue since before World War II, when a plan to locate one on the site of the Rosehill Racecourse was shot down.

The Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Anthony Albanese said this morning:

“Without a second airport congestion at Sydney airport will continue to worsen which is why Sydney needs a second airport sooner rather than later.

“That’s why we’ve established a joint taskforce with the NSW Government to identify strategies and locations to meet Sydney’s future needs.”

Unfortunately for the NSW and federal governments, however, there remains a struggle over whether or not a new Sydney airport means one that will be in the Sydney basin, or outside it, in whoop-whoop,  where it will be completely useless for  business and leisure travellers.

So far the O’Farrell government has shown no understanding of the need for air access for Sydney to be provided in Sydney, not one or two hours away using a high-speed rail link that on current indications would not only be useless for air travellers, but take another 50 years to workshop and build.

Albanese’s office recently resisted an opportunity to again unequivocally rule out the site at Badgery’s Creek, which Albanese passionately supported while in opposition, and on which he has declined comment on the record while the site selection joint taskforce continues its work, with a decision expected before the end of the year.

Realistically, this means that the absurdity of jets sitting on the ground with several thousand restless passengers onboard, with engines turning but going nowhere at Sydney because of purely political restrictions  will continue for 10, 20, who knows how many years, dragging down the rest of the Australian airports and with them the convenience of  tens of thousands of other passengers country wide.

Peter Fray

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