How Australia's airports are failing flyers

How Australia's airports are failing flyers

A damning watchdog report says not a single facility can even be rated as "good." Travelers seem to agree
Sydney Airport is "struggling to keep up with increased passenger traffic, resulting in continuous flight delays." (File photo)

Six of Australia’s 22 airports might be ranked in the world’s top 100, but according to the leading Australian consumer and competition watchdog, none can be rated as “good."

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has delivered a damning report card that will either ring true or shock the tens of million of people who transit through the country's airports every year.

The report is based on assessments of airlines, passengers and border security agencies. 

According to the ACCC, Sydney Airport -- which is listed on the Australian stock exchange and valued at some A$6.4 billion (US$6.6 billion) -- struggles with getting aircraft to land on time. Increased passenger traffic is being blamed. 

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"The main demand driver at Sydney Airport during 2011-12 were international passengers, which increased by 3.6 percent while domestic travelers fell 1.7 percent," said the report.

Servicing Australia’s largest mining state, Perth Airport doesn’t rank any better than Sydney. There, the proportion of on-time flights is also trending down, no doubt frustrating the 13.3 million people who use the airport.

There's been a 20% increase in the number of domestic travelers transiting through Perth's airport and a 7% increase in international travelers. 

Though aircraft congestion and the delays it causes is the biggest complaint of most flyers, it’s not the only one. The high cost of parking at Australia’s airports came in for special mention. Parking revenue at Melbourne Airport hit A$114 million last year and A$100 million at Sydney Airport. 

At Melbourne Airport for example, which has limited public transport access and poor waiting/pick-up facilities, short term parking starts at $4 for 20 minutes, $8 for 40 minutes, $12 for an hour.

The ACCC report also slammed the nation's airports for poor service even as they continue to be profitable. Aeronautical revenue per passenger, an indicator of average prices, increased at three of the five monitored airports. Only Adelaide and Perth decreased.

ACCC: More investment required

Despite this, the overall quality of service fell, according to the report, with Sydney Airport faring worst and the watchdog calling for more investment to fix the problems. 

"It is apparent that continued growth in passenger numbers at most airports is placing pressure on existing aeronautical infrastructure, contributing to lower service standards," said the ACCC.

"More investment is required to avoid excessive congestion, and ensure that the needs of Australia's travelers can be adequately accommodated." 

Passengers in large number seem to agree. 

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An A$750 million redevelopment program is underway at Perth International Airport. When we sent out a call on Twitter asking for views on traveling through any of Australia’s airports, most of which have the capacity to handle international air traffic, the verdict was as damning as the ACCC’s.

“I fly at least once a week and been to most airports in AUS and overseas. How much time have you got?” said Twitter user Dr Ricky Lee

“Parking fees that can be greater than cost of flying. Privatization led to monopoly, competition is how much can they charge,” complained Roger F 

“Many regional airports have security concerns & Tiger terminal in Melbourne is a shocker all round, food, space you name it!” said Antony Balmain 

“Perth airport woeful. Separate tiny intl terminal from the 80s. Dom always crowded, walk to most flights on tarmac. Park km away,” said Kim O'Grady

There were dozens more like those.

There’s even a Twitter hashtag devoted to the subject; #bnelateagain offers a stream of complaints from disgruntled passengers, bemoaning flights delayed or canceled without notification as well as delayed landings.  

In an earlier CNN Travel list calling out the world's most hated airports, several readers thought Sydney Airport should have been included. 

"Three hours to get from international arrivals to domestic departure ... what a joke. Missed my connection to Brisbane, of course. Now only fly direct to Brisbane. Sydney airport is pathetic," commented Jeff Erwin

'Failing to invest in future'

The Australian Airports Association has rejected the criticisms contained in the ACCC report. 

The lobby group, which represents some 250 airports and aerodromes throughout Australia, says there has been significant investment at most airports. 

“The Australian Airports Association does not accept the ACCC’s suggestion that the quality of service outcomes reported for 2011-12 mean that airport operators are falling behind in the delivery of airport infrastructure,” said the association’s chief officer, Caroline Wilkie. 

The Australian Airports Association says billions of dollars have been spent on infrastructure upgrades. (File photo)The group says A$9 billion has been invested in aeronautical infrastructure since 1997, when Australia’s 22 airports were privatized, with another A$9 billion planned for the next decade.

It said new terminals, runways and landside infrastructure were being built or are planned to be built at all the airports covered in the ACCC’s annual review.

But Michael Harris, a technology specialist, regular traveler through Australian airports and an active member of the Australian Frequent Flyer forum says that as the Australian government prepared to sell off the country's airports, it failed to place requirements on the new owners to “invest for the future."

“As a consequence, Australian airports have and continue to play a massive game of catch up to bring their facilities in line with not only the needs of the carriers, but also the passengers passing through them,” said Harris.

The recently inaugurated alliance between Qantas and Emirates is also having an impact.

“Perth airport, which is my hometown, is currently being given the hurry up by carriers such as Emirates,” says Harris.

“They already fly three services a day to here, using primarily Boeing 7X7 aircraft, which are not keeping pace with demands on their routes.”

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Harris says Emirates wants to push larger aircraft, such as the A380, through Perth International Airport but adds, “Perth Airport is at least 12 months behind on the project to add A380-capable boarding gates to its international terminal, to the point where the carrier is understood by those in the know to have offered pretty much anything they can to have the construction and opening completed much faster.”

Perth Airport chief executive Brad Geatches told media the airport's A$750 million redevelopment program is underway and passengers would soon begin to experience the benefits. 

With passenger ratings for Australian airports down, making them a "destination experience" might help decrease dissatisfaction. But according to Harris, that’s a long way off.

“Changi is our nearest example, where people come to the airport for the experience, and the flight out is just a consequence that comes after fun,” he said.

“This is an airport which has invested heavily in low-cost passenger experience, from movie and gaming lounges for those waiting or transiting, to dining (at reasonable prices especially when compared to off-airport locations), and even bringing in the natural environment with lounges constructed inside rainforests.”

Unlike at Changi Airport and most major hub airports around the globe, the tens of millions of people who pass through Australian airports still pay a premium for Internet access that, says Harris, “is only contributing to the public's resentment of airports”.

Australia's airports -- what's your view? Share your thoughts below. 

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