Australian Airports Association calls for federal budget to make regional airport a priority

Australian Airports Association logo. (AAA)

The Australian Airports Association (AAA) has called on Canberra to make funding regional airports a priority in this year’s federal budget in the face of a “dire funding outlook” for remote and rural aerodromes.

The AAA said in it its submission to government operating costs at the nation’s regional airports were forecast to rise sharply over the next decade, making investments in airfield infrastructure and ensuring compliance with aviation safety and operating procedures more challenging, particularly for local council-owned aerodromes.

To that end, the AAA has proposed expanding the eligibility of the federal government’s Regional Aviation Access Program and Remote Airstrip Upgrade schemes, as well as increasing its funding allocation to $100 million over four years.

Further, the association wants some of rules around the schemes – such as having state or local governments match any funding offered by the Commonwealth – changed.

“Most of these airports are owned and operated by local government and they face a dire funding outlook over the medium to longer term,” AAA chief executive Caroline Wilkie said in a statement on February 10.

“Our regional airports are expecting an annual budget deficit of at least $17 million a year which is at least a $170 million shortfall in essential infrastructure and maintenance funding at regional airports over the decade.

“Our regional airports need funding support now if they are to continue to provide vital transport infrastructure for regional and remote communities, ranging from emergency service access, general aviation, freight and passenger services.

“Regional Australia is critically dependent on reliable, efficient and safe aviation infrastructure and this must be a priority in this year’s Budget.”

The state of the nation’s regional airports was highlighted in September, when the AAA released its Regional Airport Infrastructure Study conducted by ACIL Allen Consulting.

The report estimated regional airports with fewer than 500,000 passenger movements a year spent $185 million in 2014/15 to maintain and improve operations.

However, expenditures for regional airports were expected to rise by 38 per cent over the next decade, putting even more pressure on already stretched budgets, with 61 per cent of the nation’s regional airports running budget deficits in 2014/15.

Further, some 40 per cent of regional airports expected to have “persistent budget deficits over the next 10 years”.

In November 2016, Federal Minister for Infrastructure and Transport Darren Chester acknowledged the difficulties faced by many regional airports, telling guests at the AAA’s annual awards dinner in Canberra he understood “not all regional and remote airports can be a Wellcamp or Canberra, no matter how entrepreneurial their managers”.

To that end, the Minister pointed to the government’s Regional Aviation Access Programme, which provided funding for remote air services subsidies, remote airstrip upgrades and remote aerodrome inspections.

Further, he noted the government’s National Stronger Regions Fund had also approved funding for works at a number of airports.

“At the local level, it can be a challenge to adequately fund the ongoing maintenance and development of regional or remote airports,” Chester said in his speech.

“Other levels of government are generally responsible for these airports within our federal system. However, we do provide funding for access and safety upgrades through the Regional Aviation Access Programme.

“I am committed to continue to fund our regional and remote aerodromes and will work with the AAA on how best our government can deliver the appropriate support to this vital infrastructure.”

In February, the government announced 91 remote airstrips had secured funding worth a combined $11.86 million for upgrades in latest round of the Remote Airstrip Upgrade Programme.