Transcript: Media conference, Sydney

SCOTT CHARLTON: Good morning, everyone, and welcome to Sydney Airport. I’m the CEO, Scott Charlton, of Sydney Airport. And it’s – we’re really pleased to say it’s a great day today with the announcement and reforms today from the Government around helping 40 million passengers every year that travel through Sydney Airport. So we’re really pleased that Minister King is here, and I’d like to thank Minister King and the Federal Government for following through with the Harris Review proposals around improving the aviation sector here at Sydney Airport. It’s really some sensible and some practical things that can be done that really are going to help the efficiency and the workings of Sydney Airport and helping our passengers.

Sydney Airport is obviously a critical piece of infrastructure for Australia. We contribute and provide support for over 300,000 jobs. We deliver economic benefits to New South Wales and the Federal Government worth billions of dollars, and Sydney Airport needs to function efficiently and it needs to have the ability to grow to meet the future demand of our economies, support job growth and, again, of our passengers.

But on top of that, these reforms are going to provide some great relief to passengers and help the airport travel through disruption events, and the airlines as well. We know that Sydney Airport is the major hub of the Australian network, and when Sydney gets disrupted the whole network suffers severely. And we see that on quite a few occasions over the year. We have many examples where we could have weather events for, say, 1 or 2 hours and we could lose dozens and even up to hundreds of flights across the network because the airport is not allowed to recover from that. And, in fact, this week we had 45 minutes of bad weather on Monday and we had to cancel 50 domestic flights because we couldn’t recover from the bad weather events.

These sensible reforms will allow us to recover during those type of events with the airlines and make a much better experience for our passengers and make the airport much more efficient. So we’re super pleased, Minister. And I know it’s been a long time coming and we’re glad that you followed through with Harris Review, and can’t wait to hear what you have to say. Thank you.

CATHERINE KING [MINISTER]: Great, thanks very much. Thanks very much, Scott. It’s terrific to be here with you and also, of course, with Margy Osmond from the Tourism and Transport Forum here today at Sydney Airport. And behind me you can see the Sydney Airport sign all in glitter for Mardi Gras but also beautifully for the thousands of Swifties who are descending on Sydney for an amazing concert. My home state of Victoria, of course, has had the three Melbourne concerts. It absolutely transformed the city, and I know Swifties as they are coming in, are looking forward to get the opportunity to have a photo with this sign, and they’re in for an amazing weekend.

Can I also just start – Scott, thank you very much for hosting us here today. Sydney Airport is absolutely a critical piece of national infrastructure. And you are right – when Sydney Airport goes down with weather events, the whole aviation network, particularly along the Eastern Seaboard, then struggles and struggles to catch up. And we’ve seen certainly that happen on Monday.

Today the Government is announcing some changes to the demand management system here at Sydney Airport. The first thing I do want to say is that it is not making – we are not making any changes to the curfew or to the caps at Sydney Airport. But what we are doing is ensuring the first thing we’re about to do is an audit of the slots, better compliance so that we make sure there isn’t any slot hoarding and that there are appropriate penalties if we do discover that. That will be important to ensure the integrity and transparency of the slot system as it operates here.

We’re also making some changes in terms to priority for regional New South Wales flights, making sure that they have access to those peak periods when people really do want to come in for business or medical appointments rather than being constrained to some of those earlier times where, really, it’s very difficult for someone to get a flight at 4am from regional New South Wales and not be able to come in to Sydney at that time.

The changes we’re making also do provide for a recovery period when there have been significant and major weather events. That recovery period does not go into the curfew but what it does allow for is when those significant weather events have occurred, that there is a catch-up period allowed where the cap is lifted to 85 flights per hour to enable that period of time to be able to ensure that we don’t have what we had happen on Monday – with numbers of domestic flights cancelled, people really not able to get to their destinations, not able to get home or having to spend nights in hotels when they could be home with their families.

This has been a long time coming. The demand management system here at Sydney Airport is a really important system. It balances the needs of the travelling public but also with the many communities that live under the flight paths and live close here to Sydney Airport. We think we’ve got the balance right. We’ll obviously have to bring legislation to the Parliament to get this enacted through. We look forward to the Opposition’s support for this. They’ve talked long and hard about the need for demand management reform at Sydney Airport, while the Albanese Labor Government is delivering for the travelling public but also delivering for the communities around Sydney Airport at the same time.

I’m going to hand over to Margy to say a few words about the importance of the airport and this announcement to tourism and transport here in New South Wales, and then I’m happy to answer some questions. Margy.

MARGY OSMOND: Well, there’s no doubt that Sydney Airport is our national and international gateway. For it to operate efficiently absolutely is a priority for the tourism industry, and we are thrilled to see these changes that are being discussed today.

The reality is, if something goes wrong at Sydney Airport, it sneezes, the entire network gets a cold, and that means a bad traveller experience and people not having flights, flights being cancelled and overall inconvenience. This announcement today is about improving the situation for flyers, travellers, visitors to Australia, and it will be great news for the tourism industry.

CATHERINE KING: Happy to take questions.

JOURNALIST: Do you think these changes will sufficiently scare airlines into acting appropriately? Like, will Qantas – do you think they should be worried of news of this?

CATHERINE KING: Well, obviously the first thing that we’ll be doing this year – and, indeed, this doesn’t require legislation – is a proper audit of slot use. We obviously need to make changes to the compliance regime. But I want to be really clear: we want to make sure that we have a strong capacity here at Sydney Airport for slots to be used, not pretended to be used, and we want to check to see whether that is happening. And certainly it’s a signal to the airlines that, you know, the slots are not your property; they are the Australian travelling public’s property, and we want to make sure that Australian travellers can get to their destinations they want, not just Sydney but across the entire network, and Sydney is really key to that.

JOURNALIST: There’s been some talk in previous years about tweaking the 80-20 rule for the slots. Maybe it wasn’t fit for purpose at Sydney Airport. Some people – the airport I think had previously talked about maybe a 90-10 rule or a 95-5 rule. Is that still on the table or is –

CATHERINE KING: No, we’re not making changes to that at all. Again, as I said, this is a balance. You know, we recognise that Sydney Airport is in a really busy area. Lots of people live in this area, so it’s a balance between improving the way in which travel occurs at Sydney Airport but making sure that we continue to protect those communities that are under flight paths.

JOURNALIST: Do you think changes like this today will do enough to address some of those concerns raised about a duopoly in Australian aviation and what it means for fare travellers in terms of costs and time performance?

CATHERINE KING: Yes, so a couple of things: this will certainly free up slots here at Sydney Airport for other players to get slots into the marketplace. International players wanting to increase their slots in that early morning part of the curfew, being able to ensure that regional airlines have access to some of those more lucrative but also more – you know, where there’s more demand for the times to get in here. So that will certainly improve that.

It also provides the opportunity, as I said, if Sydney goes down, for recovery. But what we also know is that through the processes of the Aviation White Paper – I’m just going through the many, many submissions we’ve had to the Aviation Green Paper, with the White Paper to be announced later this year – that we do expect better performance, better on-time performance from our major airlines. We expect that there are better consumer protections, people’s complaints over things like how they can use credits, the way in which, you know, people with disabilities access and travel through our airports as well as on our airlines, all of those things are discussed in the White Paper, and we’ll be making further announcements about that.

This is one part of the reforms that we’d like to see to aviation, but the demand management system, it’s been a long time coming and it hasn’t really had any major changes to it for a long period of time. And so this is a significant announcement we’re making today.

JOURNALIST: And how does the system work and [indistinct] –

CATHERINE KING: Sorry, I can’t quite hear you.

JOURNALIST: Sorry. How will this audit system work? Will airlines be required to provide more data on –

CATHERINE KING: Yes, they will. And they’ll also be required to make that data public. So, again, increasing transparency. I think shining a light on some of this also ensures that we get perhaps better behaviour from the airlines in relation to this.

JOURNALIST: Just a question on your roads portfolio.

CATHERINE KING: Yes, of course.

JOURNALIST: Can you give us an update on the status of considerations for a nationally consistent road user charge?

CATHERINE KING: That’s actually sitting with the Treasurer, but as you would have noticed, late last year, treasurers across the country post the High Court decision in relation to electric vehicle user charging that was being introduced in some states, there was an agreement that a process would be brought forward via Treasury to start discussions around road user charges.

We’ve got a balance here. We want to make sure that we incentivise the uptake of more fuel-efficient cars, and that’s why we’re in the process of consulting on fuel efficiency standards in this country. But we also don’t want to provide disincentives for that uptake, and so we’ve got a bit of a balance here that we’re working our way through. But that sits within – with the Treasurer. Obviously I’ll be consulted about think changes to road user charges, and I’m also very keen to see every dollar that we raise from motorists spent on our roads.

JOURNALIST: Just a question on –

CATHERINE KING: Yes, other questions? Sure.

JOURNALIST: What assurances can you give to residents that there won’t be any impact on airline noise?

CATHERINE KING: Well, there’s no increase in the amount of flights that are coming here through Sydney Airport. The curfew stays, the cap stays. No changes to that at all. We’re obviously – in making decisions about the demand management system, the demand management system here at Sydney Airport really is providing that balance to the travelling public to be able to make sure they can get to the destinations that they need to but also making sure that communities under the airport continue to be considered when it comes to noise. And that’s really the balance we’ve struck with the reforms that we’re announcing today.

But as Margy said, well and truly if Sydney Airport sneezes, then the entire airport does catch a cold, and we really want to try and provide that opportunity to build better resilience into our aviation network. We want people to get home. We want people to get home as quickly as they can. They want to spend time with their families, and that’s what this is really all about.

JOURNALIST: I just want to – in terms of these changes, what do you hope to see as the main change? I guess, like, in a year’s time, if this does weed out, I suppose, this behaviour of slot hoarding, are you hoping to see more, you know, new international carriers coming into here, are you hoping maybe more domestic airlines like Bonza might be able to start up here?

SCOTT CHARLTON: Yeah, what we’re looking to see out of the reforms, as the Minister said, you know, the 80-20 rule can work so long as there is compliance, and that’s the main thing we’re announcing today, and transparency on how that is working, so we can actually see the reasons of why flights are being cancelled and then the industry can also work together to minimise those cancellations, whether it be weather, infrastructure or other things. And then the recovery period will allow us to stop inconveniencing passengers and, as the Minister said, make a much better experience at Sydney Airport. But we would hope in a year’s time we would see the ability of people like Rex Airways or Bonza and others to expand their offering. And obviously we see strong demand for people to fly internationally into Sydney, and we now have essentially additional opportunity if slots are freed up to provide more choice, and more choice will lead to cheaper air fares, and cheaper area fares will lead to better outcomes for passengers.

JOURNALIST: I just want to ask one of Catherine.

CATHERINE KING: Yes, of course.

JOURNALIST: You mentioned a bit about how delays here can wreak havoc across the country.


JOURNALIST: And last week some news just to hand, I think it was two air travel controllers out in the tower here had cascading delays across the country. What are you doing to make sure that those kinds of incidents don’t happen again? Do you think we need an inquiry into Airservices Australia?

CATHERINE KING: Well, I think the thing I’d say is that, you know, part of the problem we’ve had with air traffic control was a decision of the previous government to allow early retirement to a substantial number of air traffic controllers. That was an incredibly short-sighted thing to have done, and we are playing catch-up.

We are not the only country who now is finding itself in absolute demand for air traffic controllers. The US is short, the UK is short, and we are working our way through two things: one, obviously through the Migration Program, how we can bring more air traffic controllers in to immediately alleviate those shortages. But as well we’re recruiting and training Australians into what is an absolutely fabulous career. It’s an amazing career.

Airservices is doing that work. We’ve actually already recruited a number of air traffic controllers. Again, they take time to train. As you’d understand, it’s a very specialised field of work. It’s a very stressful but really rewarding field of work, and that work will continue.

I think overall, as I said, I think, you know, one of the things that we have to be accountable for, airlines have to be accountable for, airports have to be accountable for, is why that on-time performance is happening. We’re doing what we can as a Federal Government to improve that through increasing air traffic controllers. I think most workplaces are experiencing a range of shortfalls, but also people – COVID is still with us and people are still getting sick as well. So, we’re managing through those issues, but, you know, obviously we all need to do better.

JOURNALIST: Do you think those unlimited sick leave allowances for air travel controllers could be part of the problem?

CATHERINE KING: Well, in terms of – you know, they are parts of their working conditions, I’m not going to comment on those. They’re a matter for Airservices Australia which obviously negotiates with the unions in relation to the conditions of employment. But what I would say is, you know, this is – it’s a great job. It is also a really stressful job. It’s a job that does require a particular skill set and really highly trained people. It’s a very – you know, it’s a well-paid job, but it’s a job that is, you know, fabulous but also quite stressful. So, I won’t make comments about that.

JOURNALIST: Just on the recommendations have been with the Government for three years. What took so long to act on them in and also keeping the 80-20 rule, do you think that will have a substantial impact on sort of slot hoarding behaviours?

CATHERINE KING: Well, with all of the changes we’re announcing today – obviously the audit, transparency, changes to compliance – are bringing us much more in line with international standards around slot definitions as well. All of that will see a substantial improvement in the way in which the demand management system here works at Sydney Airport.

Frankly, we inherited a report that had sat on the previous government’s desk for over 18 months. We inherited that. Nothing had really been done. It’s a very technical piece of work, a really important piece of work. We’re, you know, making these announcements today. As I said, these are part of just one set of reforms that, frankly, the Opposition talks a big game when it comes to aviation. They were in government for nine years and did absolutely nothing. They didn’t do anything about the demand management system here. They didn’t do anything about increasing competition in aviation. They didn’t stand, frankly, beside Qantas workers when they were losing their jobs. They didn’t stand beside Virgin when it was basically going into administration and desperately seeking government assistance.

The Opposition seems to talk a big game when it comes to aviation but do very, very little when it actually comes to delivering reforms. This is one part of the reform of aviation. We’ll have more to say as we go forward with the release of the components of the Aviation White Paper.

Thanks, everyone. Thank you.