Newcastle Airport has asked the NSW government to fund $147 million in upgrades which could unlock tourism and trading routes into Asia and America.
Department of Defence plans to resurface the runway next year have prompted the civil airport to dramatically accelerate the 20-year master plan it released last year.
The airport hopes to piggyback on Defence’s work by building a new double-storey terminal and widening and strengthening the runway to accommodate larger commercial aircraft capable of flying to the US west coast, China, the Middle East and South Africa.
Planes flying out of Newcastle now have a range limited to near neighbours such as Bali and Auckland, the latter of which is the city’s only international service.
But airport chief executive Peter Cock said the upgrade works would create new opportunities for Hunter travellers and industry.
“I don’t think you could overstate how important it would be,” he said. “We’ve got great local, state and federal political leaders saying Newcastle needs to be and should be a global city. Can you validly call yourself a global city when you can’t connect directly to significant places in the globe?”
The airport has compiled a business case which predicts a boost of $6.2 billion over 20 years to the regional economy if the project goes ahead.
“It’s prudent to bring it forward now because Defence have to do some routine maintenance works,” Dr Cock said. “Basically, you’ve got to do it now or you’ve got to wait 10, 15 years. We think there’s an opportunity the region can’t afford to miss.”
Virgin Australia started a seasonal service from Newcastle to Auckland in November. Those flights will end on February 17, and Virgin has not announced whether demand has been strong enough to repeat the service next summer.
Asked at a Hunter business and civic leaders’ visit to Auckland this week whether carriers from further afield would be interested in flights to Newcastle, Dr Cock said airlines were not interested in discussing that prospect until the airport could accommodate their aircraft.
“It’s a chicken and egg. We went to Routes Asia, where airlines and airports get together. We were talking to Korean Air, as an example, and they say, ‘When can we fly there and what aircraft can we fly,’ and you tell them they can’t actually fly direct, and they switch off.
“We’re here in Auckland, and that’s great, and we’re hearing about all the economic activity that we can reach now because we’ve got a direct flight.
“Imagine going up into Malaysia or Korea or places like that and exposing our region to that economic activity, and instead of it being a distant, multiple-point journey, it’s a direct flight.”
The airport had “robust numbers” to support its business case and had shared them with the government.
Defence told a senate estimates hearing late last year that it had no plans to upgrade the runway for heavier aircraft, but it “does not oppose upgrading the runway to facilitate longer-range civilian aircraft”.
“That’s a very strong signal from the Department of Defence that they’re not going to block this and they see the value of their role in supporting the region,” Dr Cock said.
The airport believes longer-range flights will create lucrative new markets for Hunter producers.
“It puts hundreds of millions of people hours and hours and hours closer to us in terms of a market, and when you’re dealing in perishable, high-value produce, that’s vital,” Dr Cock said.
The business case, which was prepared by Synergies Economic Consulting, says Newcastle Airport serves Australia’s sixth largest passenger catchment area but is only the nation’s 13th busiest airport.
The government announced last year that it would contribute $11.7 million towards establishing the Astra Aerolab Business Technology Park next door to the airport. The commercial precinct will specialise in aviation and aerospace manufacturing, maintenance and research projects.
Dr Cock said the airport’s plans dovetailed with a report released this week on the need to diversify the Hunter’s economy away from coal.
The report prepared by University of Western Sydney’s Dr Neil Perry for the Lock the Gate alliance argued the region’s economy was “intimately bound up” with international efforts to reduce global warming.
“The airport is very cognisant of the need to diversify and invest in new technologies and industries so our region can continue to prosper,” Dr Cock said.
“That’s one of the reasons behind our drive to develop a truly international airport, through an upgrade of our runway.
“We strongly believe this is one of the game-changing initiatives that can help set a new course for our region.
“We’ve spoken to the community as well as senior politicians on both sides, and we feel there is genuine support for the project and a good understanding of its benefits.
“What we are hoping to see is this solidify into a commitment in the short term, to give our region some certainty going forward.”
The airport’s new push for state funding comes as the Liberal-National government attempts to hold on to power at next month’s state election and win back the Labor-held seat of Port Stephens, the Lower Hunter’s only marginal electorate.