The chair of the Senate transport committee is chasing a sweeping inquiry into commercial developments around Australia’s airports amid concerns that new office blocks, retail developments and hotels are jeopardising the safety of critical transport infrastructure.
The push comes as part of the ongoing fallout from the 2017 Essendon Airport DFO crash, which has raised serious questions about government oversight of the rapid commercial development taking place at the nation’s privately run airports. NSW’s new airport at Badgery’s Creek is also still in the middle of the planning process.
Queensland Nationals senator Susan McDonald, who chairs the Senate Rural and Regional Affairs and Transport Committee, said she was “massively concerned” about what happened at Essendon Airport, in Melbourne’s north, as well as other developments in and around major, secondary and regional airports across Australia.
“We can’t risk aviation safety over commerce,” Ms McDonald said. “We need to shine a spotlight on the decision making for infrastructure within air spaces and ensure that there is a clear understanding that maintaining airspace is a priority.”
Ms McDonald said every airport in the country was under commercial pressure to build non-aviation infrastructure such as retail buildings and office blocks around their airfields. But those developments were potentially jeopardising the safety of people in the air and on the ground, and threatening airports’ primary obligation to function as critical transport infrastructure, she said.
Five people on board a Beechcraft B200 King Air died in 2017 when the light aircraft ploughed into the rear of the DFO retail complex built at the southern end of Essendon Airport’s main runway in 2005.
The Age and Sydney Morning Herald revealed last year that Essendon Fields Airport had built the DFO closer to a runway than recommended under international and Australian safety guidelines.
The airport – run by the families of trucking billionaire Lindsay Fox and businessman Max Beck under a 99 year lease from the federal government – has since proposed narrowing the technical “width” of its runway so it can construct more buildings around the airfield.
The Australian Airline Pilots’ Association (AusALPA), an industry group that represents commercial pilots on safety and regulatory issues, has had long-standing concerns about commercial buildings encroaching on airspace that were heightened after the Essendon Airport crash.
“There’s been this crack in the regulation that’s been allowed to open up what favours the commercial interests of an airport rather than the pure safety interests,” said Captain Marcus Diamond, an AusALPA safety and technical representative.
“Our legislation is not fit for purpose, we’ve got to have a legislation review to close that gap.”
Responsibility for approving new buildings around airports is split between the Civil Aviation Safety Authority, the Department of Infrastructure and private third-party contractors.
Captain Diamond said CASA needed to be made the sole responsible body for reviewing and approval new buildings to ensure transparency, accountability and that safety is put first.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is yet to release the findings of its investigation into how Essendon’s DFO building was approved, which has been expected since January 2019. The report was released in draft form to the airport and other interested parties almost a year ago.
Ms McDonald said that if supported by other senators, the inquiry would look at examples of developments already built at airports around the country and examine CASA’s role in reviewing and approving developments.
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