Infrastructure & Transport Minister Anthony Albanese publicly released the long awaited National Aviation Policy White Paper, entitled Flight Path to the Future on December 16, revealing few surprises.
“The government’s aim is to give industry the certainty and incentive to plan and invest for the long term, to maintain and improve aviation safety and security and to give clear commitments to travellers and airport users, and the communities affected by aviation activity,” Minister Albanese said in a speech launching the paper at the National Press Club.
Contained in the 240 page document are 130 policy initiatives covering the industry, with Minister Albanese noting that aviation plays a large role in the economic development of Australia and contributes $6.3 billion to the national economy.
The foreign investment caps in the Qantas Sale Act will be relaxed, meaning that a single shareholder will be able to hold more than 25 per cent of the company, while a foreign airline will be permitted to buy more than 35 per cent of the carrier. However, the 49 per cent cap on total foreign ownership will be retained.
The change was welcomed by Qantas CEO Alan Joyce, who said, “This change will increase Qantas’s flexibility as it meets the challenges of an uncertain global economy and business environment, opening up opportunities for strategic growth and alliances.”
“It gives Qantas parity with Australian carriers governed by the Air Navigation Act when it comes to attracting capital,” he added.
The government has also reaffirmed its commitment to liberalising air traffic rights, with Albanese highlighting the negotiation of an open skies agreement with the European Union as a major priority. In addition to this, the government will open up air traffic rights to regional international airports outside of the main gateways of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth to encourage more foreign airlines to serve cities such as Darwin, Cairns and Broome.
The paper also highlighted the importance of regional air services, and has announced that funding for the Regional Air Services Subsidy Scheme, Remote Aerodrome Inspection Program, Remote Aerodrome Safety Program and Remote Aviation Infrastructure Fund will be consolidated. It will also refine the en route air charges scheme to assist operators in remote parts of Australia (even though that program is currently due to wind-up in 2012) and ensure that regional slots at Sydney Airport are maintained at existing levels.
The general aviation sector has won some gains, most notably the protection of secondary airports at major capital cities, with the government committing to using the master development plan process to ensure that non-aeronautical uses do not interfere with the primary aviation purposes of such airports. GA operators will also gain incentive to update their aircraft with accelerated depreciation and a broader investment allowance.
CASA will see its service charges capped at current levels for the next five years, and will also receive a $3.8 million budget increase in funding to enhance oversight of priority areas such as helicopter activity, foreign operators flying within Australian airspace, and aircraft maintenance undertaken outside Australia. The regulator will also gain additional resources to complete its regulatory reform program by 2011, and will finalise regulations on flight operations and licensing by the end of 2010.
In addition, CASA will also establish a Sports Aviation Office guided by a strategic framework on sport aviation, providing assistance with exchanging information between the sector and CASA.
There will also be some changes to security arrangements at airports, with the list of prohibited cabin baggage items to be changed, making it once again permissible to carry items such as nail clippers, knitting needles and some metal knives onboard. However, passenger and checked baggage screening will be extended to all flights operated by aircraft with a maximum takeoff weight of more than 30,000kg initially, and then to 20,000kg (which will encompass large turboprops such as the Dash 8 Q400 series).
Airports will have to increase their consultations with communities under the master development plan process, with formalised Community Aviation Consultation Groups to be established at the major capital city airports, while Planning Coordination Forums will be established to better link airport planning with state government planning. The latter will also see airports have to include ground transport plans in their master plans.
The White Paper has also formalised the joint federal-NSW government study into a second airport for the Sydney Basin, excluding the long held Badgery’s Creek site which has been ruled out by the Rudd government. Interestingly, the report also notes that the government will “review existing investment strategies for the civil and Defence airport facilities in the region, including an assessment of their capacity to meet the Sydney region’s future aviation requirements,” potentially signalling that RAAF Richmond could be opened up to airline movements.
The government has also called for action on aircraft noise, with the minister noting that aircraft noise around airports was a significant issue. “Airports are critical economic infrastructure which must operate in a modern economy, but residents have a legitimate expectation that every effort will be made to minimise disruption from aircraft noise.”
As such, the government will introduce regulations to stop noisy aircraft such as hushkitted Boeing 727s from flying over residential areas, while Airservices Australia will appoint an Aircraft Noise Ombudsman to handle noise inquiries, review complaints handling procedures, and monitor Airservices’s community consultation arrangements to improve the flow of information to the community.
In conclusion, Minister Albanese noted that the policy hoped to deliver equitable outcomes for the aviation industry and the wider community. “I’m confident that the broad approach it outlines will have the general support not only of the airline industry, but also the people who really matter – the broader community.”