The future of Katoomba Airport in the Blue Mountains region of NSW is in doubt after the government elected not to lease the airport last month.
Katoomba has been operated under a licence arrangement for the past two years, with licencee FlyBlue nominated as the preferred tenderer to lease the airport, which lies surrounded by national park.
After community consultation, the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment informed FlyBlue that no lease would be offered and that FlyBlue's licence to operate the airfield was to be terminated and replaced with a new licence that prohibited helicopter flights.
According to the department, this was done because of community fears that joy flights would ruin the peaceful environment, even though the lease conditions proposed specifically excluded joy flights and circuit training.
“In direct response to feedback from the community, the Department has declined the application by FlyBlue to lease Katoomba Airfield at Medlow Bath to use as a recreational aviation hub,” Deputy Secretary of Crown Lands Anne Skewes said.
The lease was publicly exhibited for eight weeks from June to August and attracted 1582 submissions, with the department saying more than 85% opposed the application and only 13% supported or offering conditional support.
“Among concerns raised were noise pollution, preserving the appeal of the Blue Mountains as a peaceful environment, potential pollution of water supplies, and protecting Aboriginal heritage interests,” Skewes said.
FlyBlue Director Derek Larson has slammed the consultation telling Australian Flying that his company was not allowed to attend a public meeting last year and that no aviation experts able to answer community questions accurately were there.
Larson said that the department has indicated they will re-issue FlyBlue with a licence to operate the airport without a lease on the land, but that helicopter flights were to be excluded. Fixed-wing aircraft currently cannot use the airport because the runways are unsafe and in need of an upgrade.
According to FlyBlue, the department has said the new licence will be issued to cover "access and investigation" only. FlyBlue is currently trying to get clarification on what that means.
FlyBlue has been operating helicopter flights between Sydney and Katoomba, bringing high-value international tourists into the Blue Mountains region, many of which don't have the time or inclination to make the journey by road or rail. Larson told Australian Flying that these tourist are now likely to be redirected to another region, such as the Hunter Valley.
Katoomba Airfield is an invaluable community asset for the residents of the Blue Mountains, and recently it demonstrated its value as a front-line base of operations during the bush fire crisis," AOPA Australia CEO Benjamin Morgan said.
“The airport’s two runways are currently in an advanced state of disrepair, with the airport requiring over $3 million in capital works to return it to a safe status. There is no appetite from the Blue Mountains City Council to step in and provide critical funding, nor has there been any interest from the Department of Lands.
“The environmentalists and activists which have sought to block the airport lease, have given no regard to the conservation of human life, the safety of the community, wildlife and bushland, nor have they offered a plan to provide the immediate capital funding that is required to ensure that the airport is maintained to a safe standard for fire-fighting activities.
“Whilst community consultation is critical, the process undertaken by the Department of Lands has been substantially flawed and permitted opposing submissions from persons to which the airport has no direct or meaningful relationship.
“AOPA Australia is deeply concerned that anti-airport activists have misrepresented the facts and have sought to fear-monger tourists and visitors to the Blue Mountains into opposing the airfield."
Katoomba Airport played a critical function in the recent bushfire crisis in NSW, being used as an operational base for the NSW Rural Fire Service and as a refueling and reloading facility for fire fighting helicopters. It is believed the airport would still be available for emergency services if it remains open.
Katoomba Airport in not part of the surrounding national park, and is currently the subject of an Aboriginal Land Claim (ALC) registered in July last year. A previous ALC lodged in 2009 was rejected because the airport was under a commercial lease at the time.
FlyBlue has started an on-line petition asking the NSW government to reverse its decision.
The Department of Planning, Industry and Environment has been contacted for comment.