A Federal Government issues paper on the future of aviation in Australia has canvassed the option of giving more power over airports to state and local governments, reigniting concerns over closures of local and regional airports.
The paper The Future of Australia's Aviation Sector: Flying to Recovery was released on 1 October and calls for submissions on a number of challenges facing the aviation industry in immediate and post-COVID eras.
Within the paper is the outline of a Five-year Plan for industry recovery, which also contains three government policy objectives.
" ... this Issues Paper seeks stakeholder feedback on policy options to achieve the Government’s aviation policy objectives," the paper states, "focusing on three main areas:
- "Reducing the regulatory burden to reduce costs for aviation businesses, encourage greater competition and local investment, and lower prices for Australian travellers – while ensuring our regulatory objectives are met
- "Greater local decision making by ensuring state, territory and local governments have the flexibility and autonomy to determine local aviation priorities,and respond to the changing needs of their communities
- "Targeted assistance for critical strategic aviation infrastructure and services to improve connectivity and essential service delivery."
It is the second objective that has the general aviation community worried. Many regional airports were handed over to local council control under the Aerodrome Local Ownership Plan (ALOP) that started in 1958. Since then, many councils have either struggled with the cost of operating the airport or have expressed a desire to redevelop the land for housing.
Handing more control to the councils is being seen as a trigger to accelerate closures.
Geoff Breust is a former CEO of both Regional Express and Kendall Airlines. He is also the convenor of the Regional Airport Users Action Group.
"The suggestion to provide local government (as owners of airports) with 'flexibility and autonomy', ability to develop 'local aviation priorities' and 'respond to the changing needs of their communities' is a strong indicator of a push to remove the Commonwealth further from any responsibility or accountability for regional and local airports and by definition, continued cost-shift to local authorities," he believes.
"Further, the paper talks about these airports as being businesses. They are not and this is a fallacy that has been promoted by state and local governments for years. Regional and local airports are community assets just the same as the roads that connect regional and local communities both intrastate and interstate.They are essential infrastructure for our national economy.
"Australia continues to lack effective infrastructure to provide the foundation for our industries – especially agriculture, mining and services and potentially manufacturing in the future. To suggest such infrastructure, including airports, be relegated to local/regional considerations with the potential for undesirable outcomes (including closures) based on inappropriate priorities, undermines the whole basis for the development of the industries seen as the life blood for our future
"Accordingly, the Commonwealth and the states have a direct responsibility for that infrastructure and its funding. The current ad hoc funding programs must be replaced with a funding regime for development and major maintenance which recognises the needs and priorities on a national basis.“
Australian Airports Association Chief Executive Officer James Goodwin told Australian Flying that his organisation backed the idea of greater automony for local governments, but warned that the Federal Government needed to promote a consistent approach to decision making.
“Every community and every airport have different needs, issues and priorities," Goodwin said. "It’s important for state, territory and local governments to be given the power to make decisions based on the needs of their local communities and airport passengers.
"However, the Federal Government is responsible for aviation regulation and it’s important there is a consistent national approach when it comes to matters such as aviation safety, security screening, airport land use protection and flight paths.
“The Federal Government is not going to give up this responsibility, nor should they."
When questioned on the finer points of the objective to hand more power to the state and local governments, a spokesperson for the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications said that the policy objectives did not actually represent any policy.
"The issues discussed in the paper do not represent Australian Government policy and no decisions have been taken on any of the matters canvassed," she said. "Stakeholder views will be key to informing any future decisions on policies and reforms."
The full issues paper is on the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Communications website.