Sydney airport curfew regulation caps on aircraft movements

A new report from the Productivity Commission on the economic regulation of airports has found that Sydney Airport’s curfew and cap on aircraft movement comes at the expense of its overall efficiency, and at times even results in more rather than less noise.

The purpose of the Productivity Commission’s inquiry is to determine the effectiveness of the economic regulation of services provided by airports to airlines, passengers, and people and businesses that access the terminal precinct.

The Commission found that while Sydney Airport continues to operate efficiently, its limited space to expand, its caps on aircraft movements and its curfew, combined with strong passenger growth, have caused periods of congestion.

It suggested that the airport’s operating efficiency could be further increased with changes to regulatory constraints on aircraft movements.

The Commission found that regulatory constraints at Sydney Airport, though they restrict the effect of aircraft noise on local residents, come at the expense of broader airport efficiency.

The movement cap and airport curfew can exacerbate delays when there are unexpected incidents, such as weather events. Delays that lead to congestion, particularly during peak periods, can force some aircraft to wait on the ground or in the air until the next 15-minute rolling hour before they are allowed to take off or land in order to avoid breaching the movement cap.

Aircraft movements can be prohibited entirely when delays stretch toward the curfew period. Delays interfere with passengers’ schedules, create costs for airlines and have flow-on effects for Australia’s aviation network more broadly due to the high number of aircraft that pass through Sydney Airport.

In this way, the movement cap and curfew sometimes result in more noise and emissions, in spite of their noise reduction objective.

Inquiry participants, including Sydney Airport and the Tourism and Transport Forum, said that aircraft that arrive earlier than scheduled (due to catching a tailwind, for example) may be forced to wait in the air rather than land to avoid breaching the movement cap or curfew, creating additional noise, excess environmental emissions and unnecessary fuel burn.

Further, the legislation permits the use of one type of jet aircraft for freight operations during the curfew, but not newer, quieter aircraft.

The Commission suggested the objective of managing the effect of aircraft noise on local residents should be balanced with reforms that benefit the community at large, including through improvements to the efficiency of Sydney Airport.

Changes that increase the flexibility of the movement cap and that target noise outcomes more directly would most likely improve the operational efficiency of Sydney Airport as well as airlines.

This could be done in a way that meets current noise objectives, but that reduces unintended consequences from the existing arrangements.

The Commission is further investigating options that could meet current noise objectives at lower cost.

Options include removing the cap on actual movements but retaining a cap on scheduled movements or adopting noise-based criteria for determining which aircraft are permitted to operate during the curfew, rather than the current prescribed list of aircraft types.

The Commission is seeking further evidence from participants on these options with a view to making a recommendation in its final report.

The Commission also supports the plans for Western Sydney Airport to operate without a curfew. Further, it recommends that government planning and development activities promote the efficient operation of the airport and ensure that the surrounding land is not developed in a way that ultimately creates pressure to reduce the airport’s 24-hour operations.

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